Halal travel is spiking in popularity, and the tourism industry is listening


New York’s tourism board has launched its ‘Halal Guide to New York’.Narisa Ladak/Handout

In May, New York City’s tourism board, NYCgo, launched its “Halal Travel Guide” to New York. It highlights major sights in each of the city’s five boroughs as well as halal dining options, Muslim-friendly hotels and places for prayer, along with recommendations from locals who are part of the city’s Islamic community.

It’s not the first cultural-specific guide NYCgo has issued – the board has content for those specifically interested in the Asian, Black and Latino takes on the city – but the halal guide is the first of its kind published by a US tourism organization. (A spokesperson for Destination Canada, our national tourism organization, said she doesn’t know of any Canadian organizations that have a similar guide.)

CrescentRating, a research and consultant firm for halal travel, worked with NYCgo to compile the guide. “They reached out to us and said, ‘Look, we’re interested in this market,’ ” says Fazal Bahardeen, founder and CEO of Singapore-based CrescentRating. Discussions started simply as advice on how to raise awareness of New York as a destination within this community before culminating in the creation of the guide. The Arabic version will be released this month, he adds.

According to CrescentRating, the Muslim traveler market is a valuable one. By 2028, it’s expected Muslims will spend US$225-billion on travel, led in large part by Gen Zs, millennials and women – the latter making up 45 per cent of Muslim travelers. In other words, this is a tourist the travel industry should be interested in courting.

Zaakirah Karbary is one of them. The 25-year-old, who lives in Mississauga, typically travels once a month. A practicing Muslim, she describes herself as a “very spontaneous traveller” – she had just returned from Switzerland a few hours before speaking with The Globe – who opts for destinations that have outdoor options, like hiking or a boat tour. She has a food and travel blog, ieattravelwrite.com, and has published a children’s activity book, Passport to Adventureto inspire kids to explore the world.

Karbary wears a hijab and has found it to be a way to connect with others, especially with locals, and in destinations that aren’t particularly Muslim. During a trip to Tahiti with her mother earlier this year, she says she knew she would likely be the only female traveler wearing a scarf. “But I didn’t mind that,” she says. “Surprisingly, on one of the islands we met other Muslims who live there. They were shocked to find a hijabi there.” And on her first cruise, Karbary bonded with crew members from Indonesia who were happy to see a Muslim traveler on board. That pride “is one of the things I try to portray by going to certain destinations,” she says.

After getting requests from some of her readers to travel with her, Karbary is starting to plan group trips for female Muslim travelers, which she’ll host next year.

A 2019 report on Muslim women travelers by Mastercard and CrescentRating showed that the vast majority of the time (71 per cent) women are going on holiday, they’re doing it with family, while roughly a third of trips are taken as part of an all-female group, solo or in a mixed-gender group (29, 28 and 22 per cent respectively). And 90 per cent of them are traveling for leisure, rather than business or other reasons.

But Rafat Ali, founder and CEO of Skift, the travel industry’s leading news source, says that even many Muslim countries don’t have these tourists on their radars. “It is amazing how many Muslim countries don’t think about attracting Muslim family travelers, because the perception of attracting white, Western travelers has more prestige for them, which is a pity,” he says. “Just look at all the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region countries rushing to open up to tourism, look at their emphasis and marketing. It is obvious what they are hoping versus what is the real long-term market.” On Sept. 2, for instance, Skift published a story indicating that Morocco was likely to be the next popular destination for remote workers.

Part of the problem may be the way travel journalism – a key means of getting a destination in front of potential tourists – is executed. In August, Ali tweeted about a travel story in The Guardian about Albania: “Not a single world about it being a majority Muslim country,” going on to say that it was a missed opportunity to highlight why Albania is worth diving into, for Muslim and non-Muslim travelers alike.

“Very few of these mainstream media writers are non-Western, most of them are white,” he says when asked about what media could be doing better. “Most of these are freelancers these days, poorly paid and poorly edited, so in-depth research, long-term travel to get a deeper sense of the destination and deeper understanding of the complexities of a country like Albania are, well, hoping for too much.”

The needs and wants of these travelers aren’t significantly different from any other. Ideally there’ll be private spaces with running water for women to perform wudhu, a cleansing ritual, as well as female-only facilities, say a changing room at a gym or women-only hours at a hotel pool. But these travelers are also looking for places where they feel safe, welcome and part of a community.

Travelers are also looking for places where they feel safe, welcome and part of a community.Jay Shetty/Handout

And as the industry increasingly guides tourists to modes of travel that are more culturally sensitive and environmentally responsible, Muslim travelers are already seeking out these kinds of experiences. Bahardeen notes that significant drivers for younger Muslim travelers are social causes and the environment – ​​being able to give back to the communities they’re visiting and embracing eco-friendly tourism practices.

Indeed, these are priorities when Karbary travels. “I try to support as much locally as I can,” she says. “It’s a very humbling experience, but you learn a lot, about yourself and get to see the world from a different perspective.”

Bahardeen says that most of the work CrescentRating does now is with non-Muslim countries, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Spain. “And we are in discussions with a number of European ones,” he says.

The goal is to get these tourism boards to realize the potential of the market. And the gestures matter, even if it’s just a 24-page guide. “It’s a message,” he says. “We are open to welcoming Muslims.”

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