Photo: DUBAI, UAE, April 27, 2016: Arabian Travel Market 2016 in Dubai World Trade Center. Halal travel and tourism was one of the topics addressed at the industry trade fair / Maksym Poriechkin / Shutterstock.com
Halal or Muslim-friendly hotel operators are expressing concern over the possible misuse of ‘halal tourism’ and the consequences it could have on their operations.
The lack of consensus among the public over what defines halal tourism is a challenge facing the industry today. What is less discussed is how it could eventually encourage some companies to exploit the term for marketing purposes.
“The most important things to realize about halal travel is not only is it poorly understood by the general population, which our numbers clearly bare out, but there isn’t a commonly 100 percent accepted definition for it,” said Scott Booth, director of travel and tourism research at market research agency YouGov.
Fewer than a third, or 29 percent, said they were aware of the concept in a YouGov survey held in September and October last year.
The study, which interviewed 22,868 respondents online from across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia about their attitudes to halal tourism, found a lot of agreement about food. But then it found disagreement over other aspects – such as the need for a private part of the beach for family use, and the necessity of having a dining room for families.
Faeez Fadhlilah, co-founder of Muslim-friendly travel booking website Tripfez, agrees. “There’s no clear definition of what halal [travel] is, it’s just common acceptance and certain elements which you would deem important while traveling.”
Given the absence of a global body that oversees Muslim-friendly tourism establishments, anyone can freely use the term today.
Such potential misuse of the terminology in an attempt to capture different markets could easily hurt genuine operators, according to Mohamed Awadalla, CEO of Time Hotels.
While the hospitality brand operates dry hotels and serves halal meat, it allows women to work without hijab and offers mixed sex swimming pools, which some may consider to be non-Shariah-compliant. The group never markets its hotels as halal or Muslim-friendly.
“Time Hotels positions itself as a local chain, catering for business and leisure markets alike, yet our properties are dry and refrain from serving pork products,” Awadalla told Salaam Gateway. Since most hotels in the Middle East serve halal meat anyway, this would only be considered as a major advantage in non-Muslim markets, he said.
Nevertheless, the UAE-based hotel operator managed to attracted interest among more conservative markets, with seven hotels scheduled to open by the end of 2017. These include two in Saudi Arabia, two in Dubai, and one in each of Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Egypt.
For Shaza Hotels, an independent operator of five-and four-star hotels that was born out of a joint venture between Kempinski Hotels and Qatar’s Barwa Real Estate Group, the potential misuse of the term ‘halal tourism’ could have more pronounced consequences.
The group positions itself as a luxury brand that caters to the needs of Muslim travellers, in terms of offering only halal food and being a dry hotel. While not exclusive to Muslim guests, a number of Shaza hotels offer separate swimming pools for women and men as well as women-only floors.
“It is important to ensure that the term halal tourism is used in the right manner. Some may say that a hotel that removes alcohol from the rooms and offers halal dishes on their menu is enough to call itself a halal-friendly hotel,” Chris Nader, vice president of development at Shaza Hotels told Salaam Gateway.
“Others may use the terminology to promote special packages during Ramadan only. This is particularly the case in Europe. On the other hand, a brand like Shaza takes this lifestyle to a much deeper level, giving regard to privacy, service style, suitable entertainment, amongst others.”
Since there are currently no rules and guidelines that can protect the Muslim consumer when choosing a hotel, the industry runs the risk of creating confusion and constant dissatisfaction, Nader warned.
“Today it is difficult for the public to know exactly what to expect in a halal-friendly hotel. In addition, different travelers have different requirements or criteria when selecting their holidays.”
Moreover, hotels that want to tap into this market do not necessarily need to comply with all the criteria and needs of Muslim travelers. “It's a choice they have to make,” said Nader.
Nabeel Shariff, founder and director of Muslim-friendly tour operators Serendipity Tailormade and Luxury Halal Travel, believes it is too early for such a trend to take place.
“I think that the market is still young and in certain ways still trying to find its identity. That’s not to say this couldn’t be an issue in the long-term. I feel once more stakeholders in the industry realize the potential of the halal travelers, then the term could run the risk of being used loosely,” Shariff told Salaam Gateway.
If this was to occur, he added, then the main user in this whole chain who would suffer the most would be the Muslim traveler.
The idea behind halal tourism is to provide Muslim travelers with the comfort of knowing they are able to enjoy products, services and experiences that do not go against their faith.
“If for any reason a traveler has a negative experience, which in terms contravenes their principles, then the most important element in this chain, trust, is called into question,” Shariff highlights.
Maintaining this trust is a collective responsibility of tour operators, transport companies, airlines, hotels and all the stakeholders involved, he said – by ensuring they are transparent and diligent about the products they are serving to Muslim travelers.
But how can travelers differentiate between what’s authentically halal and what’s not?
“We, as a tour operator, play a major part in this. We’re entrusted to check the authenticity of a hotel’s halal food offering, or a destination’s effort to provide prayer facilities, to name a few,” explains Shariff.
The practicality of each Muslim traveler having to contact a hotel to ask them if their food is halal will become tiresome and an inefficient use of time in a busy world. And this is where tour operators like Serendipity Tailormade and travel portals like Tripfez can add value, by taking the hard work away from travelers and sourcing services that are halal and Muslim-friendly.
In the long-term, however, a globally recognized body governing the halal tourism industry would come a long way in benefitting both businesses and travelers.
As Nader recommends: “I would highly encourage the creation of an international commission for halal tourism that sets ratings or categories for hotels worldwide in the same manner that hotels have their star rating.”
© SalaamGateway.com 2016