Reem El Shafaki reflects on the growth of Muslim-friendly tourism over the past decade.
Reem is a Partner at DinarStandard (parent company of Salaam Gateway), a growth strategy and execution management firm, empowering organizations for profitable and responsible global impact. Reem leads DinarStandard’s Travel and Tourism sector practice as well as the firm’s market strategy projects. She has worked with clients such as Thomson Reuters, MasterCard, the Marriott, and the Office of the Prime Minister of Dubai.
In 2009, when I joined DinarStandard, I was introduced to the halal tourism concept. Our work focused on raising awareness among industry stakeholders about the Muslim marketplace and the basic needs of Muslim travellers.
In partnership with CrescentRating, we produced a global Muslim travel report and held workshops to educate stakeholders. The conversation centred on the market size; minimum requirements to address and how the industry could focus on Muslims while keeping mainstream travellers engaged and happy.
Although these topics remain ongoing, the conversation has expanded to include how Muslim travellers can address sustainability issues and acknowledging the tayeb (pure and ethical) aspect of Muslim-friendly travel in terms of doing no harm and benefitting the host community.
A few years later I met the Holiday Bosnia founder and discovered their trips embodied these principles. Beyond addressing the basic needs of Muslim travellers and revealing the country’s natural beauty, food and attractions, the company nurtured a meaningful experience.
Addressing the spiritual and philanthropic inclinations of Muslin travellers, Holiday Bosnia helped Muslim travellers develop deep connections to the communities they visited through financial support of projects like rebuilding villages, supporting orphans, sponsoring students, empowering peace-building initiatives and cultivating interfaith exchanges.
Around that time I also met the founder of UK-based Andalucian Routes, a travel company that immerses UK Muslim youth in the Islamic heritage of southern Spain. As part of these leadership retreats, the youth enjoy sightseeing and adventures and gain pride in their Muslim heritage.
Consequently, they return home more confident about their Muslim identity and Islamic roots.
Those early years were a whirlwind of conferences and FAM (familiarisation) trips to Spain, Jordan, Turkey and other destinations. Conference topics ranged from defining halal tourism and debating the terminology to identifying the needs of Muslim travellers; marketing the segment and considering future trends.
In 2013, I was asked to address the topic at ITB Berlin, the world’s largest global travel convention, and had expected my talk to be designated to a small break-out room, leaving the larger settings for the uber-interesting and well-established speakers.
Imagine my surprise when I learnt I would be addressing a 300-strong audience.
While I felt unprepared to host such a large group, I was thrilled by the interest level. Unfortunately, I was not surprised by the lack of awareness exhibited by the conference logistics staff, who, five minutes before I was going on stage, asked me to “just please take off the scarf on my head” so the male sound technician could fix my hands-free microphone.
As you might have surmised, I used a hand-held mic.
Halal consumer sentiment
As part of DinarStandard’s Muslim-friendly travel consulting practice, we researched consumer sentiment and preferences. In a 2016 social media listening project, we found 78% of the interactions on halal travel were positive; 6% negative and the balance neutral. Hajj and Umrah-related keywords represented 61% of the interactions, indicating most Muslims define halal tourism in terms of religious pilgrimage.
I believe this still pertains.
In a recent consumer survey, 84% of respondents researched whether destinations fulfilled their religious needs. In the same study, 39% believed tourism destinations and brands were neglecting their religious needs.
These findings indicate lost opportunities for destinations and travel companies.
Amid a focus group conducted with Generation Z and Millennial Muslim micro-influencers as part of the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2022 Report, one respondent perfectly summed up Muslim travel.
“Muslim-friendly travel is when the traveller can experience and enjoy activities in a country while still meeting their Islamic obligations.”
One suggestion gleaned from the focus group was that travel organisations provide a more accurate image of the country to counteract the negativity often highlighted in the news (like Islamophobic reporting and negative comments about the safety of the various destinations).
Mainstream tourism issues go hand-in-hand with Muslim-friendly tourism
When we initially advocated for Muslim travel in 2010, the conversation was basic.
“What are the main requirements of Muslim travellers and how do we fulfil them?”
In some parts of the world and for some brands, this conversation has shifted to more interesting topics such as halal wellness retreats, adventure travel and volunteer tourism for Muslim travellers. Businesses and organisations targeting Muslim travellers now have nuanced messaging that, instead of emphasising the halalness of the trip, highlights the exciting features.
Today, influencers are brand ambassadors helping industry stakeholders enhance their content marketing.
Originally, our expertise was tapped for purely halal tourism-related projects including a pilgrim real estate project and a hajj and umrah portal (because of the deregulation of umrah). Over time, we were called on to provide strategy advisory on sustainable tourism in Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries, destination development and tourism corridors.
We also provided this training to a newly established destination management office in Al Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
Recent industry shocks and silver linings
Despite the growth in halal travel, there are still speed bumps. I witnessed the economic shock triggered by COVID-19, but also the sooner-than-expected changes driven by necessity. Trends projected for the next decade became a reality – touchless travel, robots, artificial intelligence (AI) interface and autonomous vehicles – were fast-tracked.
In the past year, I have experienced both a workation and medical tourism; the first in Turkey and the second in Mexico. Both gave me a chance to fully experience each country instead of just passing through them.
Despite the progress made in halal travel, there is still a long way to go for full maturity. Earlier flagged issues still exist: no unified standards or terminology, limited awareness even among OIC countries, underdeveloped branding and fragmentation.
They need addressing while the industry contends with technological innovations like driverless transportation, blockchain, AI and robots as tourism workers.
With the progress behind and possibilities ahead, I dream of a future in which Muslim-friendly travel fully embodies the teachings of Islam regarding responsible and sustainable tourism. I also anticipate the day Muslim-friendly/halal travel is clearly defined and the offerings standardised. I envision a future where numerous strong brands offer top-notch products and services, while deserving start-ups effortlessly raise the required funding to thrive.
Reem El Shafaki is a partner at DinarStandard, heading up the research and advisory team.
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