ISTANBUL: When Mohamed al-Sanee and his wife were planning their summer holiday, they looked for a destination that could accommodate their lifestyle and dietary needs.
After trawling through hotel comparison sites, the young Muslim couple decided on an all-too-familiar destination for Arabs from the Gulf.
“Turkey was the first and last choice. It was a no brainer,” the 32-year-old Kuwaiti national told Al Jazeera. “I wanted a hotel, which would cater to my family’s needs – one that had ablution facilities and a prayer room, not a pub.”
Until the late 1990s, the Muslim travel market was dominated by agencies specialising in pilgrimages to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Madina, or flights for immigrants for whom “holiday” meant a trip back home to see relatives and loved ones.
If you look up and down Turkey, small traditional hotels are realising the business opportunities of catering to Muslims. They’re trying to cash in on the Muslim market
But in the last few years, scores of hotels have begun offering “halal holidays” in countries such as Turkey, as they try to tap into a small but growing market of young observant Muslims from Asia, the Middle East and Muslim communities in the West, looking for a break that is compliant with the Islamic law.
“I simply wanted a place where my wife [who wears the full-face veil] could travel freely without glaring looks,” al-Sanee said. “Turkey was an easy option.”
While halal holidays account for a small fraction of Turkey’s tourists, the market as a whole has become a fast-growing sector in the global tourism industry.
According to an annual report published by Thomson Reuters in collaboration with DinarStandard, a US-based strategy and research firm, Muslim-majority countries spent $169bn on travel in 2016, representing 11.8 percent of global expenditure.
“Turkey is a natural destination for Muslim travellers,” Reem el-Shafaki, a senior associate at DinarStandard, told Al Jazeera.
“As a Muslim-majority country, it already offers the faith-based facilities required by Muslims, including halal food, prayer spaces, and water facilities in bathrooms.
“And, as a global tourism destination, Turkey offers attractions and heritage sites sought after by tourists from around the world, and ultimately, Muslims are like other tourists, they want to enjoy everything an attraction has to offer as long as their religious needs are being met.”
Dinar Standard said that travellers from the Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) represented the biggest spenders, with an estimated $60.7bn lavished on travel in 2016.
Travellers from Saudi Arabia were estimated to have spent $20bn, Qatar was the third-highest predicted source of tourist spending at $12bn, while Kuwait was ranked fifth at $9bn.
Turkey attracted the largest numbers of visitors from the Middle East, with tourist arrivals rising from 2.3 million in 2012 to 3.6 million in 2015.
‘Cashing in on the Muslim market’
In Antalya, a Mediterranean resort known for its white sandy beaches, the Adin Beach Hotel, said it had a developed a unique model where it did not just accommodate devout Muslims, but actively catered to them.
Alparslan Topcu, the hotel’s sales and marketing manager, said a number of Turkish hoteliers were beginning to follow his model and diversify away from conventional tourism.
“We offer services that hotels such as the Movenpick and Hilton would never offer,” Topcu told Al Jazeera.
“We offer a 5-star hotel experience to Muslims, with segregated facilities such as beaches and pools, family only areas and really good halal food.”
The Adin hotel provides segregated live shows such as disco shows and aerobic programmes, kitesurfing and a cinema.
Topcu said while he was currently hosting several Gulf visitors, the majority of his clients were Muslims from European countries such as France and Italy, who had spurned holidays on the continent due to a perceived rise in Islamophobic sentiment.
Less than two years ago, police in the French city of Nice stoked worldwide anger after they forced a Muslim woman to remove her clothing following a ban on a full-body swimsuit, known as the burkini.
While the decision was reversed by France’s top court, Topcu said Turkey had become a popular destination for Muslim holidaymakers.
“If you look up and down Turkey, small traditional hotels are realising the business opportunities of catering to Muslims. They’re trying to cash in on the Muslim market.”
Haven for hair transplants
Thousands of Gulf Arabs descend on Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, every summer because of easy access to halal products, a number of clinics offering hair transplants, and the plethora of mosques and historical sites.
Emrullah Hamza, the manager of Istanbul’s Rast hotel, which overlooks the famed Sultan Ahmet mosque, said his business has evolved to cater to Gulf tourists coming for cheap medical procedures.
“We’re a simple bed and breakfast, but all the food and drinks we serve is halal. That may not sound like much, but since we banned alcoholic drinks – business has been really good,” he said.
“To cater to the Muslim crowd, we vet anyone who wants to stay for the night. If we suspect a couple of not being married, we tell them we’re full and politely turn them away.”
Hamza said while he had only done this on a few occasions, as a hotelier, it was “well within the rights to turn any guest away”.
Muslims are ‘not a monolith’
Ufuk Secgin, the chief marketing officer for HalalBooking, said Muslim tourists were not a monolith, and interpreted Islamic rules in varying ways.
His website, which offers unique filters such as “halal food”, “no alcohol policy” and “ladies privacy”, allows users to choose the most suitable hotels that meet their holiday needs.
“The basic requirements of a halal hotel is the availability of halal food, an alcohol-free environment, access to ablution facilities as well as a prayer mat in the hotel room or a mosque in the hotel or nearby,” Secgin said.
“But when it comes to booking a beach holiday, the requirements of the Muslim travellers are more demanding.”
Some Muslims prefer staying at hotels where there are mixed swimming pools and beach areas for families – as long as certain dress codes are applied such as women wearing a full-body swimsuit or men wearing knee-length shorts, Secgin said.
Mohamed al-Sanee, the Kuwaiti holidaymaker, said Muslim tourists were willing to pay above the market rate for a vacation that is compliant with Islamic law.
“I don’t need a hotel to tell me: ‘Dear Guest, this is the direction of Qibla [Mecca].’ I have a smartphone for that.
“I simply want a hotel that is alcohol-free, one that offers separate pools and beaches for men and women and is compatible with my beliefs.
“Ultimately, I want to have a fun time on holiday with my family, and a Muslim-friendly hotel allows me to do that.”
© Al Jazeera