Islamic tourism: The next big thing?

Demand for leisure travel by Muslims is mounting in parallel with the expanding Muslim population worldwide. The phrase Islamic tourism is frequently used to describe travel by Muslims for whom compliance with religious observances when away from home is an important consideration. Among other labels are halal tourism and Muslim-friendly tourism.

Muslim travellers have several unique features. Their distinctiveness creates challenges for suppliers of services as well as destination marketers in ensuring proper provision while balancing the needs of Muslim and non-Muslim customers. At the same time, there is diversity within the overall market, based on factors such as age and nationality alongside religiosity.

Commercial interest in Muslim consumers as a whole reflects the size, growth and increasing affluence of the population. According to Pew Research, there were an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims globally in 2010 and this figure is predicted to reach 2.8 billion in 2050, about 30 per cent of the world total. Over 60 per cent reside in the Asia-Pacific region, 20 per cent in the Middle East and North Africa (where they make up 93 per cent of the resident population), 3 per cent in Europe and 1 per cent in North America.

The World Travel and Tourism Council calculates that Muslim travellers generated US$140 billion (S$192 billion) for the global tourism and hospitality industry in 2013 and it is forecast that the market will be worth US$238 billion by 2019. Muslim leisure tourists tend to be relatively young and increasingly affluent and vacation choices indicate a preference among many for places with majority Muslim populations, but also a willingness to venture further afield.

One of the most significant elements of Islamic tourism is halal food, access to which is a concern for Muslim travellers. However, specific consumer protection legislation is not always present outside the Islamic world and there is evidence of improper attribution, which is hard to detect.

The situation has arisen partly from the absence of agreed standards and the reluctance of many governments to get involved in contentious religious affairs. Several countries do have accreditation schemes run by Islamic associations, and HalalFocus (a specialist business consultancy that has a dedicated focus on the global halal market) reports there are over 400 certification agencies, both official and unofficial, operating worldwide. Some suppliers engage in self-certification, which adds to the confusion.

The increased affluence of Muslim travellers and their desire to visit long-haul destinations have led many countries' national tourism organisations to make changes to accommodate their needs, such as offering guides and apps that show halal dining options and the location of places of worship.BERITA HARIAN FILE PHOTO

The accommodation sector is a provider of food and other services essential to the tourist experience. Greater attention is now being given to the notion of halal hotels, characterised by prayer facilities, halal food, a ban on alcohol and gender segregation for certain amenities. The term "syariah-compliant" is sometimes applied and is accurate for properties in conservative Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, which are already bound by syariah law, whereas Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is less restrictive.

Hotels in popular tourist regions of predominantly Muslim countries, such as those of North Africa and parts of Indonesia and Malaysia, which rely heavily on non-Muslim foreign guests, are also more relaxed. It is probably unrealistic because of reasons of finance and practicality for most hotels outside the Islamic world to seek full syariah compliance, but recent surveys show that Middle Eastern and Asian Muslims are keen to visit new long-haul destinations.

Muslims travelling for purposes of business must also be taken into account. Hoteliers should therefore be familiar with Muslim needs and address concerns about food and prayers as far as possible. This can be achieved by ensuring that menus are suitable, copies of the Quran are placed in hotel rooms and information about places of worship is readily available.

The rest of the tourism industry is also responding to rising demand from Muslims as reported by growth strategy research and advisory firm DinarStandard. The number of specialist travel agents and tour operators, some based in Western countries, is expanding and mainstream companies, such as Kuoni, are exploring opportunities. Appropriate facilities are being introduced at airports, railway stations and attraction sites and more airlines are serving halal menus. A dedicated halal kitchen was opened at London's Heathrow in 2014 as part of a larger new facility serving international airlines at one of the world's busiest airports.

The importance of Islamic tourism is appreciated by many national tourism organisations around the world. Promotional websites such as those of Japan, Korea and Hong Kong offer guides to halal dining and the Tourism Authority of Thailand launched a special app last year. Malaysia is positioning itself as a global hub for the production of halal goods and services, incorporating tourism, with an official Islamic Tourism Centre responsible for market development. However, the Malaysian and other authorities must also advertise and cater to non-Muslim tourists and there are possibilities of friction between the expectations and desired experiences of the two groups which have to be managed.

Singapore has a competitive advantage over some rivals due to its Muslim community, supporting infrastructure of religious-related facilities and services, and halal certification programmes. MasterCard and CrescentRating's 2016 Global Muslim Travel Index ranked it the most Muslim-friendly destination for tourists outside of Islamic countries.

Islamic tourism, of which halal food is a critical component, is a striking phenomenon yielding valuable opportunities for the tourism industry worldwide and not least in Singapore. To realise these opportunities, tourism businesses must understand the requirements of Muslim tourists and take the necessary measures to satisfy them without inconveniencing non-Muslim customers. It is also necessary to communicate effectively with Muslim markets.

•Joan Henderson is an associate professor of marketing and international business, and fellow at the Institute on Asian Consumer Insight at Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Islamic tourism: The next big thing?'. Print Edition | Subscribe