Halal tourism's moment in the sun
Photographs of bearded men competing in a game of water polo and veiled women seated around tables awaiting their meal on a Nile cruise ship decorate the offices of Shouq Travel, a Cairo-based agency.
According to agency co-founder Reda Donia, Shouq Travel is the first and only agency in the Middle East/Africa region that caters to Muslims interested in travel packages that adhere to various regulations of the Koran.
“We just want to offer something new to Egyptian society,” says Donia about the three-year-old firm, whose customers live as far away as the United States.
Shouq Travel is part of a trend that finds the travel industry attempting to meet the needs of observant Muslims interested in seeing the world beyond the typical Hajj and Umrah trips to Saudi Arabia.
More on CNN: Travel's emerging superstar: The Middle East
Case in point: last year, Muslims spent an estimated US$126.1 billion on international travel, making up 12.3 percent of all international travel, according to a report on Muslim travel released jointly by consultancy DinarStandard and ratings agency Crescent Rating.
The study projects that until at least 2020 Muslim international tourism will increase at a faster rate than the average rate for international tourism -- 4.79 percent versus 3.8 percent.
At that point, the study says, overall annual spending for international Muslim tourism is expected to reach US$192 billion.
And these figures don't even include estimated Hajj and Umrah expenditures.
New market, niche market
Ministries of tourism, travel agencies, hotels and resorts, airlines and the like are tapping into the Muslim market by offering goods, services and experiences that are halal, or permissible under Koranic law.
In Asia, Malaysia is considered a pioneer in attracting Muslim tourists concerned with religious regulations. Arab investors reportedly spent more than US$300 million building two "Arab cities" in Malacca, Malaysia.
Countries in the Middle East have begun to catch on and now target what the DinarStandard-Crescent Rating study calls “the largest untapped niche market of the tourism industry.”
While Muslims engaging in international travel hail from both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority countries, their top three destinations are Malaysia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, notes the study.
More on CNN: Insider Guide: Best of Abu Dhabi
Vacation is vacation
Observant Muslims often want a halal experience while abroad -- food prepared in accordance with Koranic law, separation of sexes where appropriate, time and space allotted for prayer and an alcohol-free environment, to name some examples.
This does not mean, however, that all Muslim tourists have a uniform vision for the “perfect” vacation.
London-based Islamic Travels specializes in immersion tours that include seeing historic and religious sites, as well as having a halal dinner with a local family.
Omar Mustafa, a 32-year-old mechanical engineer from London, took a trip to Egypt last year through the agency.
He says highlights of the trip were playing chess and dining with Egyptians in Alexandria, Egypt’s second–largest city.
As the son of Muslim immigrants, Mizan Raja, 35, founder of Islamic Travels, says his mission is to encourage Muslims to experience the Muslim world and beyond, emphasizing that sitting down to a halal dinner with a local host family is “icing on the cake” and “an Islamic tradition.”
A relaxing weekend
Other observant Muslim travelers are more apt to enjoy a weekend at a beach resort.
Azerbaijan native Enver Cebi, 33, started Crescent Tours in London in 2009 after searching for a vacation spot with his wife.
“It was difficult to find a place for holiday without compromising our cultural values,” he says.
Cebi eventually found an acceptable resort in Turkey, where his wife could sunbathe in the absence of men.
“When we returned, I thought, ‘There must be lots of people in Europe looking for this type of holiday.’”
While earning his MBA at Birmingham City University, Cebi and eight colleagues conceived Crescent Tours -- the first agency of its kind, according to Cebi -- as a case study for what the team would call “halal holidays.”
Recalling his research, Cebi says that halal hotels in Turkey began opening in the mid-1990s for middle-class conservative Turkish families. By the end of 2009, he says, Turkey had about 30 such establishments.
Crescent Tours was born soon after, and is drawing most of its customers from Europe and North America. Islamic Travels draws a similar clientèle, although the agency also reports an increasing number of customers from India and Pakistan.
The DinarStandard-Crescent Rating study reports that “the most notable trend over the decade has been the growing contribution of travelers from Asia (which includes Middle East and North Africa-based tourists), rising from a 23 percent share in 2000 to 30 percent in 2010.”
Industry analysts are also predicting a rise in the number of domestic halal travelers.
Some believe that the sky is the limit for future customers. Literally.
“My ultimate objective: I want to send Muslims to the moon,” says Raja, founder of Islamic Travels.
Where to book
Shouq Travel, 10 Sherif Sami St., Nasr City, Cairo, Egypt; +20 2 2273 5773; open Saturday to Thursday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; firstname.lastname@example.org; shouqtravel.com
Islamic Travels, 2/F 47 New Road, Whitechapel, London, E1 1HE, United Kingdom and 22 Bloomsbury St., Bloomsbury, London, WC1B 3QJ, United Kingdom; +44 2033 553987; calls received seven days a week, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., office visits by appointment only; email@example.com; islamictravels.com
Crescent Tours, Regus, One Victoria Square, Birmingham, B1 1BD, United Kingdom; +44 8432 890189; call center open Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m.; firstname.lastname@example.org; crescenttours.com
More on CNN: 10 reasons to love the Middle East