Halal tourism goes mainstream, BY KARIM SAAD

Despite the worldwide recession, Muslims in greater numbers are searching for Muslim-friendly hotels and resorts to spend their money on, leaving hotels from Muslim and Western countries alike scrambling to earn their business.

Apart from the worldwide economic crisis the so-called Halal tourism is on the rise. The World Travel Market Report in 2007 forecasted a massive growth for this special type of tourism within the upcoming years. One year later, the WTO Report confirmed the huge potential for halal-tourism and strongly underpinned its estimation from 2007.

As there is no specific definition of Halal tourism, it is mainly perceived as a tourism product providing hospitality services that comply with Islamic Law. For example, Halal hotels do not serve alcoholic beverages, offer Halal certificates for food, wellness facilities for women, prayer rooms and, in general, a Muslim-friendly environment.

However, when expanding the definition of Halal tourism to being Muslim-friendly, many more hotels around the world can be seen as appropriate for Muslims. Premises like the luxury Lord Milner in London or the Holiday Villa hotel chain, which features a Qibla (prayer) direction sign in their hotel rooms, could also be seen as an important aspect of this growing market. Due to this trend many hotels are adapting their services more and more to their Muslim guests. During last year's Ramadan, the world famous Sacher Hotel in Vienna, Austria provided prayer facilities and special meals before sunrise and after sunset.

As wealthier Muslim populations in Muslim-majority countries and particularly Western Europe and the US grow, so does the possibility for Halal tourism to become big business. World travel markets like Turkey, Malaysia, the Gulf region, Singapore and Indonesia already show strong interest in Muslim-friendly facilities and accommodations. In 2005, over 150,000 tourists traveled from the Middle East to Malaysia and by 2007, an estimated 250,000 people chose their destinations based only on facilities that have Halal food certificates.

Another example can be seen in Dubai, where several hotel groups have announced the development of hotel chains complying with Islamic law. Almulla Hospitality is about to open 150 Halal hotels by 2015, not only in Middle East but even in Europe and North America. Additionally, the Jawhara hotel chain is aiming for 25 percent Sharia-compliant hotels in Dubai in the near future. Their hotels are even spending 2.5 percent of their net profit as Zakah, the Islamic charitable rate.

Interest is spreading beyond companies in Muslim countries. Zurich-based Kempinski, the oldest luxury hotel chain in Europe, is building about 30 hotels in collaboration with the Islamic company Guidance Financial Group by 2015. Branded as Shaza those premises will open in Northern Africa, the gulf region and Europe. The world's largest hotel chain, Best Western, already offers Halal hotels in Malaysia, Bahrain and Oman and they are planning to open more hotels within the upcoming years. The Brussels-based Rezidor Hotel Group, which operates brands like Radisson Blu and Park Inn, has estimated that the Sharia-compliant hospitality market will grow by 20 percent per year over the next decade.

As South Africa geared up for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, a new luxury Halal hotel, the Coral International Cape Town, was on hand to host Muslim football fans. The southern city hosted recent games between England and Algeria, Cameroon and the Netherlands, with one semi-final still to come. "Our philosophy is to ensure a safer surrounding for our clients and as we continue to break through new markets, we stay committed to our core values of honesty, integrity and respect for local culture and people," says Cindy Valentine, the hotel's Public Relations Officer.

But the largest part of Islamic tourism is still the obligatory, once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia that is worth several billion US dollars annually. The hospitality industry there is growing dramatically as Mecca has become completely reconstructed within the last few years. Even huge hills were removed to extend the Grand Mosque’s compound due to limited space.

"We see the provision of premier and sophisticated accommodation, facilities and related infrastructures in Mecca and Madinah as a huge but untapped market," says Tan Sri Arshad Ayub, one of the chairman of the newly launched Al-Harameen Fund investing in the hospitality industry in Mecca and Madinah.

These developments show that this huge and untouched market is slowly but steadily losing its character as a niche. However, this still lies in stark contrast to the rising Islamophobia in Europe and the West, where many countries are discussing niqab bans within a growing hostile atmosphere towards Muslims.

If such trends continue, countries like France, until now one of the most fashionable hotspots for Arab tourists, will have to consider the impact of massive losses of tourists from the Middle East. Until then, it's just a question of time to see whether Halal tourism is able to play a major role within the worldwide tourism industry.

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