Welcoming the halal traveller

How many hotels put an H to mark halal food? 46 per cent of customers globally are kosher customers and 22 per cent are halal customers. There is a huge potential that remains untapped.

Living and working in the UAE for the past decade, I am perhaps more attuned to the needs of a halal traveller, than the average Joe in the West. But average Joe cannot turn a blind eye to halal travel (or Muslim-compliant travel), especially if he is in the business of travel and tourism.

In a recent study by Salam Standard, it has been reported that the United States is the biggest beneficiary of global Muslim tourism spend, enjoying 24 per cent share of the total Muslim travel spend worldwide or almost $35 billion. Muslim tourism contributed $16 billion to US GDP last year, driving the prosperity of restaurants, hotels, cultural venues, travel agents, airlines, local transport and retailers country-wide.

It is no secret that some of the biggest spenders in the UK are patrons from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, with Kuwaitis being the biggest spenders worldwide for the UK. (Although Qataris are more visible strutting their supercars down London’s famous streets). Tourists from the Gulf travel in larger-than-average groups (mainly big families with maids), stay longer nights, book more rooms, rent luxury cars, indulge in expensive shopping as well as sight-seeing.

How can one cater to halal travellers better, how can one tap further into this growing market?

Mentioning prayer timings, mats and marking the direction to the Kibla in a hotel room add that special touch, especially when a practising Muslim is travelling to a different time zone. The Holy Koran is also an important addition to the room. Muslim travellers prefer not to consume alcohol and certain meat, they feel more comfortable with certified halal food. Some other common requirements are bathrooms with water facilities, separate spa/swimming pool timings or areas for men and women, iftar and suhoor services during Ramadan, etc.

It is all too easy, however, to bunch together all halal travellers into one bracket, it is imperative to remember that they are not a homogeneous lot and there are various other points to consider.

Firstly, not every Muslim prefers to travel halal. If they do, there are varying degrees of halal, some are strict followers of the Islamic code, others make generous concessions when they travel. Also, it helps to bear in mind, that halal as a concept is open to interpretation. For instance, smoking may be considered halal by some Muslims, while others will gladly spend long, leisurely days smoking shisha with friends.

Intra-GCC travel is never a problem to book, as all the GCC nations are Muslim majority and need to adhere to most of the Islamic requirements by law. The problem surfaces when GCC travellers venture beyond the Muslim-aware zone and travel westwards.

Various halal-travel-related challenges have emerged in a recently concluded roundtable by TTN, in collaboration with Arabian Travel Market in Dubai. Some agents and suppliers requested for a global standardisation body to come forth and lay the ground rules down for halal travel, to provide a point of common reference. Others have chosen to deal with halal travel on a case by case basis – focusing more on the needs of individual travellers. Some agents and operators in the region lamented that hotels outside the GCC charge extra money to empty the mini bar. Such hotels are likely to get less business from Muslim travellers.

Outbound travel agents and tour operators in the GCC spend thousands of man hours just trying to locate a hotel that may cater to their halal-friendly clientele. It is important that suppliers update their websites and brochures with services for Muslim travellers.

With a more attractive exchange rate for the pound, the GCC’s love for the UK will continue to grow, this is a good time to love them back.

According to Amadeus, halal tourism numbers are expected to hit 150 million in travellers volume and collective spend is estimated to be $200 billion by 2020. In 2014, this number was $145 billion.

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By Rashi Sen