In May, the New York tourism authority NYCgo published its “Halal Travel Guide” for New York. It highlights the top attractions in each of the city’s five districts, as well as halal restaurants, Muslim-friendly hotels and places of worship, along with recommendations from locals who are part of the city’s Islamic community.
It’s not the first culture-specific guide NYCgo has released — the board includes content for those interested specifically in the city’s Asian, Black, and Latino views — but the halal guide is the first of its kind to be published by a US -Tourism organization is issued. (A spokeswoman for Destination Canada, our national tourism organization, said she doesn’t know of any Canadian organizations that have a similar guidebook.)
CrescentRating, a halal travel research and advisory firm, worked with NYCgo to put together 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 began simply as advice on how to raise awareness of New York as a travel 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 valuable. Muslims are expected to spend $225 billion on travel by 2028, led in large part by Gen Zs, Millennials and women – the latter making up 45 percent of Muslim travelers. In other words, this is a tourist that the travel industry should be interested in.
Zaakirah Karbary is one of them. The 25-year-old, who lives in Mississauga, usually travels once a month. A practicing Muslim, she describes herself as a “very spontaneous traveller” – she had just returned from Switzerland before speaking to The Globe – who opts for destinations that offer 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 children to discover the world.
Karbary wears a hijab and has found it to be a way of connecting with others, particularly local people and particularly in places that are not predominantly Muslim. During a trip to Tahiti with her mother earlier this year, she said she knew she would likely be the only female traveler wearing a scarf. “But that didn’t bother me,” 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 befriended crew members from Indonesia, who were delighted to see a Muslim traveler on board. That pride “is one of the things I try to represent by going to certain goals,” she says.
After receiving requests from some of her readers to travel with her, Karbary begins planning group tours for female Muslim travelers, which she will host next year.
A 2019 Mastercard and CrescentRating report on Muslim travelers showed that the vast majority of the time (71 percent) women go on vacation, they do so with family, while about a third of trips are taken as part of a holiday all-female group, solo or in a mixed-gender group (29, 28, and 22 percent, respectively). And 90 percent of them travel for leisure rather than for business or other reasons.
But Rafat Ali, founder and CEO of Skift, the travel industry’s leading news source, says even many Muslim countries don’t have these tourists on their radars. “It’s 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 shame,” he says. “Just look at the whole MENA [Middle East and North Africa] Countries in the region rushing to open up to tourism, look at their priorities and marketing. It’s obvious what they’re hoping for compared to what the real long-term market is.” For example, on September 2, Skift published a story that suggested Morocco was likely to be the next popular destination for remote workers.
Part of the problem could be the way travel journalism – an important means of promoting a destination to potential tourists – is carried out. In August, following a travelogue in The Guardian, Ali tweeted about Albania: “Not a single world from it being a Muslim-majority country,” going on to say it was a missed opportunity to highlight why it is worthwhile for Muslims to be in Albania immerse and non-Muslim travelers alike.
“Very few of these mainstream media writers are non-Western, most of them are white,” he says when asked which media could do better. “Most of them these days are freelancers, badly paid and badly edited, so thorough research, long-term travel to get a deeper sense of purpose and a deeper understanding of the complexities of a country like Albania is too much to hope for.”
The needs and desires of these travelers are not significantly different from others. Ideally, there would be private rooms with running water for women to perform wudhu, a purification ritual, as well as women-only facilities, such as 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.
And as the industry increasingly directs tourists toward more culturally sensitive and environmentally friendly travel options, Muslim travelers are already seeking such experiences. Bahardeen notes that social reasons and the environment are important drivers for younger Muslim travelers – they can give back to the communities they visit and embrace eco-friendly tourism practices.
These are indeed priorities when Karbary travels. “I try to support as much as possible locally,” she says. “It’s a very humbling experience, but you learn a lot about yourself and see the world from a different perspective.”
Bahardeen says CrescentRating now mainly works with non-Muslim countries, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Spain. “And we are in talks with some European companies,” he says.
The aim is to get these tourism associations to exploit 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 Muslims.”
Stay up to date with the weekly Sightseer newsletter. Register today.