The growing influence of Muslim tourists around the world

(ON) – In cold, wintry London, Ahmed and his wife have recently returned from their honeymoon in the Maldives. In their late twenties, this British Muslim couple had dreamed about an archetypal paradise island escape, but they were also looking for some extras: halal food, and a place that would be accommodating of their Muslim sensibilities.

“We didn’t want the headache of worrying about what to eat and looking for halal restaurants”, says Ahmed. He also wanted to ensure that his wife could enjoy swimming while observing her modest dress. “This was a place where private pools are available with the rooms.” And, he adds, referring to the all over swimsuit that Muslim women are rapidly adopting around the world: “Even if she did want to swim in public, she wouldn’t have got stared at in her burqini.”

Ahmed and his wife are part of a growing global trend of Muslim travellers seeking out destinations and services that fit with their Islamic aspirations. It’s part of the upsurge of the Muslim consumer market, worth an estimated $2.1tn. Over 90 per cent of Muslims say their faith affects their consumption.

In 2011, Muslims spent an estimated $126bn on travel and tourism, an amount predicted to rise to $192bn by 2020 – and that is without counting the religious pilgrimages of hajj and umrah. This expenditure accounted for more than 12 per cent of total global outbound tourism expenditure in 2011, according to the World Tourism Organisation.

Global revenue from Muslim tourists is expected to rise 4.8 per cent a year over the next eight years, compared with a global average of 3.8 per cent. Both Muslim majority and Muslim minority countries are exploring what kind of brand positioning they want to establish to attract this growing business. As yet, there are no clear leaders, so it’s a space that is wide open for destination and service branding.

Some Muslim travellers’ aspirations are relatively straightforward. Most commonly asked for is easy-to-access and plentiful halal food. Mosques and other places to pray are also important. Hotels that offer facilities segregated by gender such as spas, pools and even access to beaches are well received.

Muslim travelers are looking for the “halal” label on hotels, restaurants and even airlines when they travel. Fifty per cent of Muslim travellers would use halal-friendly facilities if they existed and 30 per cent would seek strict Sharia-compliant services. For some Muslim travellers, hotels that do not serve alcohol are also important. Qatar’s Retaj Marketing & Project Management will invest $500m in Turkey to build Islamic Shariah-compliant hotels. Also important are small touches like in-room indicators of the direction of prayer, Qurans and prayer mats, and bathroom hygiene facilities.

Some Muslim travellers are looking to connect with Muslim populations in other countries to learn more about the ‘ummah’, the global Muslim nation and its heritage and, for some, visiting sites from Muslim history is important. Tour operators in Japan are finding a seam of Muslim visitors from nearby Malaysia willing to pay above average prices in the knowledge that their Muslim requirements will be safeguarded. Japan is turning to Asian Muslims from Indonesia and Malaysia to make up for a fall in Chinese visitors.

In Australia, Queensland tourism is positioning itself as Muslim-friendly in a bid to attract a growing number of Muslim tourists from nearby Indonesia. The state of Victoria has launched a major tourism campaign in the Middle East, including Arabic/English visitor guides. Not to be outdone, New Zealand businesses are being offered workshops on reaching out to the halal tourism industry. Countries with minority Muslim populations are starting to see them as assets when it comes to attracting Muslim tourists, either through food availability or as an incentive to visit the extended ‘ummah’. China’s Muslim Ningxia province is being positioned in this way, vying for Muslim tourists especially from the Middle East and southeast Asia. Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau hopes to increase its number of halal certified eateries to attract more visitors from Muslim nations. Thailand, too, is developing its halal eating capabilities and reaching out to the nearby Indonesian market, and promoting the fact that “a few thousand spas already have their unique herbal treatments in halal form.” With Ramadan now falling during the hotter summer months for Muslims in the northern hemisphere, at least one Thai hotel chain is offering Ramadan hotel packages: inclusive meals are served after dark and right through the night rather than in the day time.

In Europe, the European Commission has called for greater promotion of inward Muslim tourism, thinking specifically about Islamic historical sites as a draw for travellers. Monaco is seeking to woo Saudi tourists. A Bosnian halal authority feels that its cultural heritage as well as its location could make it a major halal tourist destination. Albania is intensifying its efforts to boost tourism and economic co-operation with Saudi Arabia. And World Halal Development is training the European hospitality industry on halal practices.

Of course, Muslim nations like Turkey, Malaysia and Egypt are proving to be among the fastest in tapping into this segment. And they also offer good insights into some of the tentative brand positionings being laid out. Turkey’s efforts are often described as halal holidays. The phrase sharia tourism is bandied about for Indonesia. Indonesia’s ministry of tourism has recently spoken about its strategy of reaching out to Muslim travellers through an Islamic experience. Egypt has been treading cautiously on using words like halal, sharia or Islamic due to the importance of tourism to their economy from a range of countries around the world, as well as the sensitive domestic political situation. Authorities seem to have settled on calling their efforts ‘family tourism’, which is enough to hint to Muslim travellers about the kind of facilities they can expect. These nations are all offering their services as part of Muslim-friendly tourism. But there is a specific trend drawing on the pride among Muslims as Muslims: the growth of the Islamic travel experience.

The small nation state of Brunei has launched the Brunei Islamic experience, in efforts to establish the country as an Islamic destination for Muslims around the world. It’s part of a wider effort that includes establishing the Brunei Halal brand, which again is being positioned as a service to the wider Muslim ummah. Malaysia is marketing a Malaysia Islamic experience. For example, it recently promoted religious tourism packages around an international Quran festival to attract tourists from Asean countries. In Saudi Arabia pilgrimage visas were once extremely restrictive in duration as well as location – being available only for Mecca and Medina. These are being increasingly lengthened to offer pilgrims the chance for some tourism. And Saudi Arabia’s inherent conservatism is marketed as an asset for families in particular. Saudi Arabia wants to build its tourism business by promoting the Kingdom as the land of Islam and a cultural hub.

The Muslim travel segment is undoubtedly extremely attractive for countries and service providers. But they need to think carefully about how they brand themselves to appeal to Muslim sensibilities. And these branding claims need to be meticulously and substantively supported by the services and experiences available once the tourists arrive. From luxury to roughing it, historical sites to mosques to spas, the branding opportunities are vast. And at $126bn, the rewards are vast, too.

Shelina Janmohamed is Vice President of Ogilvy Noor, the world’s first bespoke consultancy for building brands with Muslim consumers. Ogilvy Noor is part of Ogilvy & Mather.