x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

The fast and the smooth: Ramadan travel is big business this year

Many Muslims avoid travel during the Holy Month, but this year it coincides with the busy school summer break, and the tourism industry is preparing to welcome fasting guests.

Thousands of Muslims gather in Trafalgar Square in London to celebrate Eid Al Fitr. Britain has one of the largest Muslim communities living in a non-Muslim country. Luke MacGregor / Reuters
Thousands of Muslims gather in Trafalgar Square in London to celebrate Eid Al Fitr. Britain has one of the largest Muslim communities living in a non-Muslim country. Luke MacGregor / Reuters

The Moroccan sales manager Madiha Zoubiri is like many Abu Dhabi residents. She prefers not to travel during Ramadan. “My concept of a holiday is to take a break from everything related to real life,” she says. “If I was fasting, I wouldn’t be able to do all of the activities I would like to do as a tourist, like sightseeing, visiting museums, taking long walks, or going to the beach.”

This year, however, the Holy Month falls during the end-of-school summer period – a traditionally busy time for travel – and tourism providers are expecting an increase in the number of guests observing Ramadan. While many people prefer the comfort of home during this time – with the exception of those visiting Saudi Arabia for Umrah – this year is likely to be different, and airlines, hotels and even tourism authorities are offering flexible hours and meal times, festivals and cultural events to entice guests.

The Muslim travel market was estimated to be worth US$140 billion (Dh514.21bn) last year – accounting for about 13 per cent of the global travel total – and is expected to grow to $200 billion by 2020. Travellers from the GCC accounted for 37 per cent of the global spend.

Malaysia, Turkey and the UAE are the top three halal destinations for 2014, according to a survey by travel authority Crescentrating. Taking the top spot for the past four years, Malaysia is accustomed to accommodating the needs of fasting guests during Ramadan. The presence and accessibility of halal restaurants and provision of prayer rooms at key locations have earned the country the top title. “An increasing number of destinations are now keen on tapping into this segment and adapting their services to take into account the unique faith-based needs of Muslim travellers,” says Fazal Bahardeen, the chief executive of Crescentrating. In Malaysia, this means that there are “now more and more hotel kitchens with halal certification and an increasing number of hotels are also now catering to the specific needs of Muslim travellers,” he says.

While Malaysia’s heat and humidity will be a challenge during a summer Ramadan, its location near the equator means that there are fewer daylight hours compared with more-northerly destinations, which is sure to be a bonus for fasting visitors. Among the highlights at this time of year are the nightly Ramadan bazaars, where street-food stalls sell traditional food and seasonal treats for breaking the fast.

In Turkey, the second-ranked halal destination, Ramadan and Eid events take centre stage throughout the country. Mustafa Özdemir, the cultural and information attaché for the Turkish Consulate General Cultural & Information Office, says that visitors are welcome to get involved in Ramadan activities, such as group iftars. “Many restaurants are ready with their special menu for iftar. They prepare Turkish foods, kebabs, traditional desserts such as baklava, and güllaç [a special dish served during Ramadan] made with milk, nuts and pistachio, which is often enjoyed in cafes,” ­Özdemir says.

In Istanbul, the main activities are centred around Sultan Ahmet Mosque, more commonly known as the Blue Mosque, where thousands of families gather with their picnic baskets each evening for iftar on the lawn.

It’s not only Islamic countries that are catering to the needs of fasting visitors. Annique Labuschagne, the manager of Gulf markets for VisitBritain, says that the UK’s diverse culture makes it an ideal place to visit during Ramadan. “[There are] endless options of halal restaurants and accommodation that are either owned or run by Muslims, all of which offer traditional iftar and suhoor meals during Ramadan, in addition to services and facilities, such as mosques in all major cities and prayer rooms in airports, universities and other public facilities,” she explains.

With one of the largest Muslim communities living in a non-Muslim country, Britain has more than 1,500 mosques, according to Labuschagne. “[London] is a true melting pot of the world’s cultures and has a thriving Middle Eastern scene focused on Bayswater, Edgware Road, Kensington, Westbourne Grove and Shepherd’s Bush. Here, travellers can meet local Arabs and Muslims, chat in their coffee shops, eat in restaurants serving halal meat, and pick up Arabic fast food and pastries from delis. In these bustling districts, visitors will find halal butchers and Anglo-Arab retailers, including specialist grocers and food stores.”

The end of Ramadan is marked with fanfare in the nation’s capital. “The Mayor of London’s Eid Festival is a free annual event celebrated in Trafalgar Square,” says Labuschagne. “There is a food festival where visitors can sample delicious global cuisines, live music and activities for children, including face painting, henna, calligraphy and sports. Last year, there were live performances from nasheed artists.”

Hotels across London, and indeed Europe, are also accommodating the needs of this growing segment of the market. The Dorchester in London provides Arabic-speaking staff and alters the shift times of operational staff during Ramadan to accommodate the late-night requests of fasting guests. During the day, housekeeping staff are instructed not to service the rooms of fasting guests to avoid disrupting their sleep.

For those with health in mind, Spain’s SHA Wellness Clinic has introduced a detox cleansing programme that aligns with the Holy Month. It includes a medical consultation, nutrition advice, acupuncture, massage, workshops and gentle exercise, along with healthy dishes and juices for iftar, dinner and suhoor, which can be enjoyed in a private suite.

In Switzerland, the Tschuggen Grand’s Arabian Nights package includes traditional halal food, separate men’s and women’s prayer rooms, room service that’s respectful of Ramadan hours, Arabic-speaking staff and, for an additional fee, a private butler service.

Getting to and from a destination is a consideration for fasting travellers, and the UAE airlines Etihad and Emirates have responded. Aubrey Tiedt, the vice-president of guest services for Etihad, says that the national carrier’s cabin crew have a broad understanding of Arabic hospitality and the expectations of fasting guests. “For [those] fasting during Ramadan and travelling on flights departing or arriving close to iftar, a specially packed Ramadan refreshment box will be made available,” Tiedt says. “The refreshment box includes Arabic dates, a laban drink, a freshly prepared sandwich and a bottle of water. Our cabin crew will inform guests about both suhoor and iftar timings through on-board announcements. We also have prayer mats and prayer areas on-board for our guests’ convenience.”

While guests expect Gulf airlines to understand the needs of fasting guests, British Airways ensures availability of halal meals, albeit through pre-ordering, and highlights multi-faith prayer rooms with reading materials in Terminals 1, 3 and 5 at London Heathrow. In addition, Qantas flights between Australia and London Heathrow, via Dubai, automatically serve halal meals, while most other major airlines offer halal meals through pre-ordering.

For those travelling this Ramadan, Labuschagne has this advice: “Before departing your country, take a look at the [relevant] websites and many of your cultural questions will already be answered. Visitbritain.com offers a wealth of information for travellers and lists the top halal accommodation around Britain. Other websites offer wide-ranging information from where to find halal restaurants, mosques and accommodation ideal for Muslims to Middle East associations, events and activities.”

weekend@thenational.ae

Follow us @LifeNationalUAE

Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.