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, which empowers organizations to achieve profitable and responsible global impact. Reem leads DinarStandard’s travel and tourism industry practice as well as the company’s market strategy projects. She has worked with clients such as Thomson Reuters, MasterCard, Marriott and the Prime Minister’s Office in Dubai.
In 2009, when I joined DinarStandard, I was introduced to the concept of halal tourism. Our work has focused on raising awareness among industry players of the Muslim market and the basic needs of Muslim travellers.
In partnership with CrescentRating, we produced a global report on Muslim travel and held workshops to educate stakeholders. The conversation focused on market size; minimum requirements to meet and how the industry could focus on Muslims while keeping traditional travelers engaged and happy.
While these topics remain relevant, the conversation has broadened to include how Muslim travelers can address sustainability issues and recognize the tayeb (pure and ethical) aspect of Muslim-friendly travel in terms of not harm and benefit the host community.
A few years later, I met the founder of Holiday Bosnia and discovered that their travels embodied these principles. In addition to meeting the basic needs of Muslim travelers and revealing the country’s natural beauty, food and attractions, the company has nurtured a meaningful experience.
Catering to the spiritual and philanthropic inclinations of Muslim travellers, Holiday Bosnia has helped Muslim travelers to develop deep bonds with the communities they have visited through the financial support of projects such as village reconstruction, support for orphans, student sponsorship, empowerment of peacebuilding initiatives and the cultivation of interfaith exchanges.
Around this time, I also met the founder of Andalucian Routes, a UK-based travel company that immerses British Muslim youth in the Islamic heritage of southern Spain. As part of these leadership retreats, young people enjoy sightseeing and adventure and are proud of their Muslim heritage.
As a result, they return home more confident about their Muslim identity and their Islamic roots.
Those early years were a whirlwind of conferences and FAM (familiarization) trips to Spain, Jordan, Turkey and other destinations. Conference topics ranged from defining halal tourism and debating terminology to identifying the needs of Muslim travellers; segment marketing and considering future trends.
In 2013, I was asked to speak on the subject at ITB Berlin, the world’s largest travel convention, and I expected my talk to be aimed at a small breakout room, leaving the larger settings for the more interesting and established ones. speakers.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that I was speaking to an audience of 300 people.
While I didn’t feel prepared to host such a large group, I was delighted by the level of interest. Unfortunately, I was not surprised by the lack of awareness shown by the conference logistics staff, who, five minutes before I took the stage, asked me to “please , just take the scarf off my head” so the male sound technician can fix my hands-free microphone.
As you may have guessed, I used a handheld microphone.
Halal consumer sentiment
As part of DinarStandard’s Muslim-friendly travel advisory practice, we researched consumer sentiment and preferences. In a 2016 social media listening project, we found that 78% of interactions about halal travel were positive; 6% negative and the balance neutral. Keywords related to Hajj and Umrah accounted for 61% of interactions, indicating that most Muslims define Halal tourism in terms of religious pilgrimage.
I believe this is still relevant.
In a recent consumer survey, 84% of respondents inquired about whether destinations met their religious needs. In the same study, 39% believed that tourism destinations and brands neglected their religious needs.
These results indicate lost opportunities for destinations and travel agencies.
In the middle of a focus group conducted with Muslim Gen Z and Millennial micro-influencers as part of the State of the Global Islamic Economy 2022 report, one respondent summed up Muslim travel perfectly.
“Muslim-friendly travel is when the traveler can experience and enjoy activities in a country while respecting their Islamic obligations.”
One suggestion gleaned from the focus group was for travel organizations to provide a more accurate picture of the country to counter the negativity often highlighted in the news (such as Islamophobic reporting and negative comments about the safety of different destinations).
The problems of traditional tourism go hand in hand with Muslim-friendly tourism
When we first advocated for Muslim travel in 2010, the conversation was basic.
“What are the main requirements of Muslim travelers and how do we meet 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. Companies and organizations targeting Muslim travelers now have nuanced messaging that, instead of emphasizing the halal nature of the trip, highlights the features of interest.
Today, influencers are brand ambassadors helping industry players improve their content marketing.
Originally, our expertise was requested for projects purely related to halal tourism including a pilgrim real estate project and a hajj and umrah portal (due to the deregulation of the umrah). Over time, we have been called upon to provide strategic advice on sustainable tourism in Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries, destination development and tourism corridors.
We also delivered this training to a newly established Destination Management Office in Al Quds, the Arabic name for Jerusalem.
Recent industrial shocks and bright sides
Despite the growth of halal travel, there are still speed bumps. I have witnessed the economic shock triggered by COVID-19, but also faster than expected changes driven by necessity. Trends projected for the next decade have become a reality – contactless travel, robots, artificial intelligence (AI) interface and autonomous vehicles – have been accelerated.
Over the past year, I have experienced both work and medical tourism; the first in Turkey and the second in Mexico. Both gave me the 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 to reach full maturity. Previously reported problems still exist: no unified standards or terminology, limited awareness even among OIC countries, underdeveloped branding and fragmentation.
They need to be addressed as the industry grapples with technological innovations such as driverless transportation, blockchain, AI, and robots as tourism workers.
With the progress behind and the 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 when Muslim-friendly/Halal travel will be clearly defined and offers standardized. I envision a future where many strong brands deliver top-notch products and services, while deserving start-ups effortlessly raise the funds needed to thrive.
Reem El Shafaki is a partner at DinarStandard, leading the research and advisory team.
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