Middle East Current Events
There used to be a jingle in the United States, exhorting to, "Look for the union label, when you are buying that coat, dress or blouse."
These days, more and more Muslim travelers are looking for the "halal" label on hotels, restaurants and even airlines when they travel. The word "halal" means permitted - created or operated in compliance with Islamic law.
A new report by DinarStandard, a US-based firm that tracks the Muslim lifestyle market, has found that spending by Muslim tourists, which was $126 billion last year, is forecast to reach $192 billion by 2020.
Not all of these Muslim tourists necessarily want food or other services that conform to the strict standards of Islam. But enough people do, and the travel industry is listening. In Malaysia, for example, the De Palma Hotel Group advertises itself as "sharia compliant," referring to Islamic law.
The hotel's website says that all food in the hotels is "halal" and no alcohol is served, even at wedding parties. There are also "Islamic floors" for Muslims only, and a full-time imam to lead daily prayers in the on-site mosque. On Fridays, between the hours of 6 and 8pm, people come to pray.
"One-quarter of the world's population is Muslim and they are becoming a growing sector of the world's economy," Rafi-uddin Shikoh, who authored the report for DinarStandard, told The Media Line. "They require a unique set of services and hotels and airlines are responding."
He said that, for instance, 20 percent of all hotels in Malaysia are "Islamic compliant" and have a halal certificate from the Halal Industry Development Corporation, a company that coordinates the overall development of the halal industry in Malaysia.
"I'm a Muslim and I drink alcohol," Motaz Othman, the editor-in-chief of a magazine called Islamic Tourism told The Media Line. "Yet, we do receive a lot of inquiries from readers all over the world asking us to recommend hotels that do not serve alcohol."
Othman is based in Jordan and says there are few "Islamic compliant" hotels there. The few that do exist are run by businessmen from Saudi Arabia, where a strict form of Islam called Wahabism is practiced.
"These hotels don't serve alcohol and check to see that couples staying at the hotels are husband and wife," Othman said. "They also do not allow visits to private rooms."
He said that some travelers want "Islamic compliant" hotels when they travel with their families. They often want beaches that where men and women bathers are separated so their wives and daughters will not be ogled by strange men when they go swimming.
As a sign of the expanding tourism market, the World Islamic Tourism Mart was recently held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tour and travel operators from 50 countries came together to offer tour packages for Muslim travelers.
These packages go beyond the traditional "hajj" market which brings some 2.5 million Muslims to Mecca in Saudi Arabia annually to perform the pilgrimage which all Muslims are supposed to make once in their lifetime if they can afford to do so. Some 12 million Muslims visit Mecca and Medina every year, and the number is expected to rise to 17 million by 2025.
Saudi government statistics say revenue from tourism, which was $17.6 billion in 2010, is expected to double by 2015.
Planning for the future, the Saudis have launched huge transportation projects in the country to build a rail link joining Mecca and Medina, as well as a metro that will carry travelers between the religious sites.
Another fast growing market in Islamic travel is halal food. Shikoh of DinarStandard said that based on his company's surveys, some 70 percent of Muslim travelers want halal-certified food. This means the meat and chicken served must be slaughtered in a certain way, and no pork products can be used.
"The halal market is a 700 billion dollar market and is growing fast," he said. "And other countries are realizing the potential. Brazil is the largest producer of halal chicken; and Australia and New Zealand of meat."
Shikoh compares the halal market to the kosher market, which is currently estimated at more than $300 billion per year in the United States and is growing at a rate of 10 percent a year. Ironically, most of the consumers are not Jewish, but non-Jews who believe (often erroneously) that kosher food is healthier.
Some companies are trying to imitate the success of the kosher market with new halal products. Saffron Roads, which began production in 2012, is a company that produces Indian frozen entrees such as chicken tikka, hors d'oevres and sauces. On its website, it prominently features a round stamp that the food is "certified halal cuisine."
But the products also try to appeal to the growing natural food market, explainng that Saffron Roads CEO Adnan Darrani launched the company with clear goals. "The natural food pioneer first envisioned a halal food brand which also embodied ethical consumerism: halal, sustainably farmed, all-natural, anti-biotic free, and 100 percent vegetarian fed, all harvested on family owned farms."
It is now carried in hundreds of Whole Foods Markets in the United States.
Darrani was profoundly affected by the tragic events of 9/11 and the company's website says there is also a political message. The idea for Saffron Road is based on the idea of the Silk Road, the ancient routes in the Middle East and Far East used by traders, merchants, pilgrims and missionaries for 3000 years.
The website says that "as a long time social entrepreneur, Darrani was soul searching for a social enterprise that could bring harmony to soothe political, religious and cultural dissonance. He pondered, "was there any historical precedent that demonstrated the goodness of humanity, a higher calling to improve the human condition?"
Catering to Muslim tourists is also spreading beyond the Middle East. The tourism website of Queensland, Australia, launched a campaign this year asking. "Why not try Gold Coast for a cooler Ramadan this year?|" With a long history of welcoming Middle Eastern visitors and a large resident community, facilities for Muslims in Gold Coast, Australia, keep growing every year.|
The site also lists mosques and halal restaurants and grocery stores.
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