Islamic Lifestyle

Orange County and Cape Town: Non-Muslim destinations fast catching up with traditional halal travel hotspots


Photo for illustrative purposes only. Muslims of Cape Town walk to a mosque in the city's historic Bokaap district, October 24, 2006, celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan. REUTERS/Garth Stea

DUBAI - New non-Muslim destinations are building their offering from scratch to capture the Muslim travel market, while traditional tourist hubs are behind and need to quickly catch up, according to Mamoun Hmedan, managing director of MENA & India at Singapore-based travel search engine Wego.

“We noticed over the past two years in the Middle East a noticeable increase in the demand for unusual non-traditional, halal-friendly destinations such as Japan, South Korea and South Africa since they started announcing their offerings to this audience and reaching out to them on social media,” said Hmedan during the Global Halal Tourism Summit on April 30 in Dubai.

Orange County in Southern California is one such destination. Already a tourist centre with iconic beach towns and Disneyland in its largest city Anaheim, “The OC” is home to an Arab-American enclave known as Little Arabia.

“We have identified 11 halal restaurants in our market, but [tourists from the Middle East] are also after some of our seafood because we’re a coastal community with 42 miles of beach,” Ed Fuller, CEO of Orange County Visitors Association told Salaam Gateway. The Association represents more than 700 members of The OC's tourism community and is the resource for visitor information about the county’s 34 cities.

In 2018, the Middle East ranked as Orange County’s sixth largest source market for international tourists, up from tenth five years ago, said Fuller, without revealing specific numbers.

This growth has happened in spite of hate crimes against Muslims in the county. In 2017, Muslims were targeted in 13 percent of reported hate crimes in The OC, more than any other group, according to a report by the Orange County Human Relations Commission. This rose to 16 percent when combined with crimes against Middle Eastern individuals.

The growth in Middle Eastern visitors was enough to encourage the county to create a new halal tourist guide that will be ready for the summer. The guide will be in a map format to help tourists navigate and will include mosques, halal restaurants, attractions and the coast.

“We see the Middle East as a strong and growing market. We are now focused on expanding from just the summer to other seasons,” said Fuller.

“We’re also expanding in the family market, trying to understand what the family wants and how they approach different activities. For example, sometimes the family splits, the adults go this way and the children go another,” Fuller added.

With this knowledge, Orange County started providing a free service for families in malls that will take their shopping back to their hotels.

The visitors’ association is also studying the preferences of Muslim travellers in their twenties and thirties as it has been receiving younger visitors in recent years, including newlyweds. For instance, whale watching was not so popular with the first generation of visitors but more are now keen on such experiences.

HOW THE OC LEARNED TO SERVE GULF ARAB VISITORS

To better prepare Orange County’s community for Muslim tourists, the association collaborated with the Sheikh Mohammed Centre for Cultural Understanding in Dubai a few years ago on developing a training film. The film was run for three years, educating retailers, hotels and even the police department on the culture and various aspects Arabian Gulf families look for in their travel experiences.

“It touches on the sensitivities that our guests have and makes sure our people are respectful to other cultures. It was well-received and continues to be run as turnover occurs in the industry,” said Fuller.

Working out of a sales office in Dubai for the last five years has also helped Orange Country attract more tourists from the region.

Following in Orange County’s footsteps is another authority from a non-Muslim destination. The Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), according to deputy manager Kenji Ichimura, is planning to open an office in Dubai “as a centre of action to get Middle Eastern Muslim people over.”

“We will have a representative office opening this year,” said Ichimura.

Japan has in recent years been actively courting the Muslim visitor by first focusing on increasing access to halal food. It has been working closely with Malaysia in this respect, especially to provide enough halal food for Muslim athletes and visitors for the fast-approaching Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

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CAPE TOWN: ATTRACTING THE 97 PCT OF MUSLIMS OUTSIDE MIDEAST

Meanwhile farther south, Enver Duminy, CEO of Cape Town Tourism noted that while a quarter of the world’s population is Muslim, only three percent are in the Middle East. 97 percent are elsewhere.

“Everybody’s fighting in a small space, but we don’t need to when we’ve got an audience out there that already has direct air access to our destination. What we’re doing now is giving them another reason to visit Cape Town and to stay longer,” said Duminy.

The port city is looking to attract visitors from North Africa, where three percent of the global Muslim population lives, as well as Europe, Asia, and the U.S., markets that are familiar with Cape Town.

Like Orange County, Cape Town has invested in educating its travel industry. It has been working with halal travel pioneer CrescentRating to organise workshops and create a glossary to demystify the culture and terminology. Singapore-based CrescentRating listed the "growing non-Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) wave" as one of its top halal travel trends of 2019.

“We found that as a non-OIC destination, halal food was the most critical aspect, followed by prayer facilities,” said Duminy.

“When we looked at South Africa as a destination, we realized that we have around one million Muslims. In Cape Town, Muslims make up around a quarter of the population and there are over 162 mosques around the city,” he added.

“We’ve got all the assets, but what we haven’t done is package them for the traveller who’s looking for these things. What we need to do is tell Muslims in those markets: here’s a reason why you should visit, because I’ve never sold myself to you in that way.”

(Reporting by Heba Hashem; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim emmy.alim@refinitiv.com)

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Heba Hashem