Halal travel boom sees customised packages for Muslims

With Muslim travellers set to spend $181 billion this year, Asian and European tourism industries areare wooing them with prayer facilities and halal food options

Mr Yusof Kassim and his family have travelled to Paris in France while Ms Anita Sahari and her husband (both above) have visited South Korea. -- PHOTO: ANITA SAHARI
Mr Yusof Kassim and his family have travelled to Paris in France while Ms Anita Sahari and her husband (both above) have visited South Korea. -- PHOTO: ANITA SAHARI
Mr Yusof Kassim and his family (above) have travelled to Paris in France while Ms Anita Sahari and her husband have visited South Korea. -- PHOTO: COURTESY OF YUSOF KASSIM

As economies around the world sputter and stagnate, the tourism industry has found an eager and underdeveloped market in the Muslim community, which is expected to spend US$140 billion (S$181 billion) on international travel this year, according to CrescentRating, a Muslim travel industry consultancy.

Until a couple of years ago, Muslim travellers around the world largely spent their travel dollars on other Muslim destinations such as Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Indonesia.

Now, as the tourism industry becomes more aware of what Muslim travellers need - catering predominantly to the need for halal food and access to prayer facilities - Muslims are venturing farther into Europe and Asia. Favourite destinations include France, Italy, South Korea and Japan.

Due to stable or growing economies and large populations in Muslim countries, Muslim travel expenditure is projected to rise to US$200 billion by 2020.

Says Mr Fazal Bahardeen, 51, founder and chief executive of CrescentRating, a Singapore-based Muslim hospitality ranking and consulting firm: "Muslim countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are fast-growing economies where populations are beginning to have the disposable income they did not have 10 to 15 years ago."

There are 1.6 billion Muslims globally, accounting for almost a quarter of the world's population. About half are under the age of 25, making it a young and rapidly growing market.

Until two or three years ago, many destinations such as Italy or South Korea were impractical for Muslims. The main barrier was the lack of halal food, the top concern for close to 70 per cent of Muslim travellers, according to a 2012 study by CrescentRating and DinarStandard, a New York-based research and advisory firm.

Non-Muslim countries were either unaware or unprepared to meet halal requirements. This meant that Muslim travellers were forced to rely on packaged food such as instant noodles, bread and fruit, or take time-consuming diversions to find halal restaurants, including in destinations such as South Korea and Japan.

Korean food is largely pork-based and while Japanese seafood is halal, its typical preparation with soya sauce, which often contains alcohol, or mirin, a Japanese rice wine, makes it haram, or forbidden, by Islamic law. Other meats such as beef and chicken are not halal-certified.

This is slowly changing, however, as Korean and Japanese tourism boards eager to attract Muslim tourists are partnering with Muslim travel agents and consulting agencies such as CrescentRating to meet Muslim needs.

Japan and South Korea are hot destinations for Muslim travellers, who are enamoured of those cultures and excited by the prospect of visiting countries that were once less convenient.

The Japan National Tourism Organisation in Singapore started researching the Muslim market in 2011, according to its deputy director, Ms Susan Ong.

Since then, Narita International in Tokyo, Kansai International in Osaka and Central International Airport in Nagoya have renovated their facilities to include prayer rooms and a number of halal restaurants.

In 2012, Japan opened its first halal ski resort, The Rusutsu Ski Resort in Hokkaido. Last year, the tourism organisation published a guide to Muslim restaurants and hotels and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents to help promote Japan as a Muslim tourist destination.

Last year, an estimated 300,000 Muslim tourists visited Japan. The number is expected to rise to one million by 2020.

Travel agents and tour organisers are also helping to make it easier for Muslim travellers to venture abroad.

Until a few years ago, most mainstream travel agents here, such as Dynasty Travel and CTC Travel, did not offer halal tours and Muslim tour operators largely focused their business on religious pilgrimages.

These local travel companies have since started Muslim tour subsidiaries and expanded their itineraries to include non-Muslim destinations in Asia and Europe.

Chan Brothers Travel launched Chan's World Holidays to cater to Muslims in 2011. It started with tours to popular destinations such as Turkey and Australia and have since included tours to South Korea, Italy and Iceland.

Bookings have increased by 30 per cent year on year, according to a Chan Brothers spokesman.

Ms Anita Sahari, 47, who is selfemployed, travels with her husband and three daughters at least once a year. Ten years ago, she went only to Malaysia and Indonesia. Now, they have more halal tour options.

When travelling around South-east Asia or to Muslim countries, she plans the trips on her own, but she always travels with a tour group when visiting Europe or non-Muslim countries in Asia.

In the past two years, her family have been to South Korea and Australia with Chan's World Holidays. They are looking forward to an 11-day tour of Europe next month.

"I like my trip to be prepared by tour guides so that I don't have to think about where we are going to stay and where to find a halal restaurant. I want to be able to relax on vacation, free to sight-see and enjoy everything. It gets easier every year," she says.

The family can pray in their hotel rooms if there is no mosque nearby, and use a compass or their phones to point the way.

Muslim-centric smartphone apps and websites are also helping independent Muslim travellers to plan trips.

HalalTrip, a website designed as a consumer-focused branch of CrescentRating, includes listings of 360,000 hotels via Bookings.com.

About 400 of these hotels have been rated on a scale of one to seven by staff of HalalTrip, based on their ability to meet the needs of Muslim customers, including prayer rooms, separate facilities for men and women and whether the hotel has a halal restaurant or serves alcohol.

Every hotel listing will show travellers nearby halal restaurants and mosques, so travellers do not have to hunt for them on their own.

The website has 5,000 listings for halal restaurants around the world and aims to have 30,000 listings by the middle of next year.

Independent traveller Yusof Kassim, 46, a technical consultant, does extensive research on destinations using websites such as HalalTrip, Airbnb and Booking.com.

The extra work is worth it as he and his family of four prefer to plan their own itinerary based on Muslim historic and cultural sites.

Next month, they will take a train trip around Europe, covering cities such as Munich, Venice and Paris. They will rent apartments with kitchen facilities so that they can cook.

In Venice, they hope to visit two Islamic centres, and eat at halal restaurants in Munich, which is home to a substantial Muslim population who are mostly Turkish.

Says Mr Yusof: "As Muslim Singaporeans, we are a minority and we'd like to learn about other Muslim cultures and to see how other Muslims live and deal with daily pressures."

He is heartened to meet people willing to cater to Muslims and fondly recalls a family trip to visit the homeground of Manchester United Football Club in England two years ago.

At the Premier Inn in Manchester, a manager was able to point the family in the direction of Mecca and make sure their food was halal.

Says Mr Yusof: "He was a young white boy who had a Muslim best friend. Little gestures like his really go a long way in making us feel comfortable and welcome. It was one of our best travel experiences."


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