LONDON: On one of Elena Nikolova’s first trips as a Muslim, she realized travel for her had changed forever. Visiting Bulgaria from the United Kingdom, she saw how her new halal diet was at odds with her pork-heavy, Bulgarian-Greek upbringing. It wasn’t long before Nikolova also noticed she was getting extra checks at the airport and more attention once she landed because of her hijab.
“I realized that whether we wanted it or not, there is prejudice against those who wear a hijab,” Nikolova said. “I realized that kind of puts Muslims off traveling.”
Since she converted to Islam in 2009, Nikolova has worked to make travel more accessible and comfortable for Muslims. A lover of deals, she began to share cheap fares and travel hacks on social media to encourage others in her new community to travel too. As a student in the UK, she often booked the longest layovers possible on her way back home to Greece just so she could explore new places.
An online forum for advocating Muslim travel
Upon the urging of a friend, Nikolova transformed her expertise into the blog Muslim Travel Girl in 2013, with the goal of helping Muslims travel while being confident in their identities and without breaking the bank. Right away, she started receiving questions related to airport security and whether certain countries were welcoming to Muslims. Her readers, mostly based in North America and Europe, were apprehensive. One of Muslim Travel Girl’s most popular videos, for example, is on navigating airports as a hijab-wearing Muslim woman.
Building a comfort zone
“Throughout the past seven years, we’ve gone through [issues with] the media and Muslims, and the hijab and problems with women traveling,” she said. “The whole point of a Muslim travel blog is to help and encourage those people, to give them the resources to actually find destination information.”
While other resources exist, Nikolova says it was especially hard to find information that spoke directly to the experience of traveling as a Muslim when she started the blog. “Even though travel [for Muslims] in general is not so different, we have some differences, like [needing] places to pray or [specific] food to eat,” she said. “Not every Muslim needs these, but it should be there.”
A recent survey found the availability of halal food and prayer facilities among the most cited faith-based needs of Muslim travelers. Since 9/11, many Muslim travelers say they’ve faced discrimination at airports and on airplanes, ranging from extra security searches and intense questioning by airport staff to unexplainable visa troubles and hostility from fellow passengers.
The ‘halal tourism’ boom
At the same time, the Muslim-friendly travel market, or “halal tourism” as some call it, has been booming. The industry caters to Muslim travelers looking for destinations that meet their faith-based needs, be it a place to pray, alcohol-free hotels or women-only pools and spas. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it was estimated that by 2026, 230 million Muslim tourists would travel, locally and abroad, up from 98 million in 2010. By that time, Muslim travelers were expected to inject $300 billion into the global economy. With COVID-19, it’s now estimated it will take until 2023 to return to the same levels of Muslim tourists seen in 2019.
Nikolova attributes this increase in Muslim travelers to the global aspirations of younger Muslims, more disposable income and the persuasive power of social media. With more travelers, she says, has also come more blogs on Muslim-friendly travel, more interest from big brands and companies, conferences on the topic, and travel agencies like Halalbooking.com.
From credit card rewards to dinner recommendations
As the demographic makeup of Muslim travelers has changed, so has what Nikolova’s readers want. While initially some of Muslim Travel Girl’s most popular and requested posts were on the practicalities of traveling as a Muslim, she says now that more Muslims are traveling, the interest has shifted to what destinations to visit, insider travel tips and halal food recommendations in those places. One of their most popular topics is advice on DIY Umrah, so travelers can take the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca without using a travel agent or expensive tour package.
Bassam Ansari, who is based in Saudi Arabia, first discovered Muslim Travel Girl in 2013 through a friend. He says he often visits the site for its hotel and flight deals and has saved significant money through the site’s advice, which he finds to be personable and genuine.
“Using her reviews and travel advice I have found the best possible hotel options in quite a few different destinations,” he said. For example, Ansari says he saved 70 percent on the cost of a standard hotel room in Mecca during Ramadan, finding a room for $300 instead of the usual $1,000, because of Nikolova’s advice on how to effectively buy and use hotel reward points.
Small changes that make a big difference
Nikolova, who splits her time between Saudi Arabia and the UK, says Muslim Travel Girl is now one of the largest Muslim-friendly blogs in the West. She works on it full-time and also offers consultancy services to hotels and resorts on how to be more accommodating to Muslim guests. Even simple changes like providing soft drinks, non-alcoholic wine or fresh fruit in a welcome package, instead of wine, which is customary in places like Greece, can make a big difference in making someone feel more comfortable, she says.
“It’s important to feel safe when you travel and that your needs as a Muslim traveler are taken care of. This is why I’m passionate about…working with hotels in the industry to provide more facilities and more knowledge for Muslims,” she said. “Every destination should be Muslim friendly.”
Having converted to Islam as an adult, Nikolova says she is able to identify with both non-Muslims and Muslims, and that sense of empathy helped in the initial stages of writing Muslim Travel Girl. She says her expertise hasn’t been questioned because she converted to the religion, instead of being born into it, though she can understand that point of view.
“When you are writing about something that is on a specific inclusivity, whether it’s halal travel or whether it is accessibility travel, you have to have a basic understanding and principles in order to be accurate in your writing,” she said. “For me, I’m a Muslim, I’m a travel expert, and I have that knowledge because I’ve worked and lived that life for the past 10 years.”
Travel opens your mindset
Part of why travel is so important, Nikolova says, is because it can counter misconceptions and prejudice. When she converted to Islam, for instance, her Greek Orthodox parents were not happy about it. But after she and her mother traveled to numerous countries together, including her mother spending a year in Doha, Qatar when Nikolova’s daughter was born, things changed.
“It’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about traveling and encouraging Muslims to travel, because you open your mindset,” Nikolova said. “Traveling brings us closer. You wouldn’t know your neighbor if you didn’t talk to them. It’s the same thing with going and exploring a different city; you wouldn’t meet locals and talk to them if you didn’t visit.”
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.
© Lonely Planet