Explainer: Historical, cultural experiences dominate travel trends for Muslims | Salaam Gateway

We speak with Ufuk Seçgin, chief marketing officer at HalalBooking, a UK-based global Muslim travel agency on current trends and the future of Muslim-friendly travel. 

Please share a unique travel trend you witnessed during Ramadan this year.

This year, we found that Ramadan Umrah was very popular. It was made easier for Muslims living in Europe to travel, as for many the last 10 days of Ramadan coincided with Easter school holidays. 

These days it’s very straightforward to plan an independent Umrah trip – often called ‘DIY Umrah’.  Since the kingdom of Saudi Arabia overhauled its visa regulations, over 60 nationalities can now get their visas online in a couple of clicks, so it’s no longer necessary to travel with a large group or book through a specialist agency. 

Ramadan proved popular not only because of the increased blessings of performing Umrah during the holy month, but also due to pilgrims wishing to share the unique atmosphere in Makkah and Madinah, with the Ummah coming together from across the world to share Iftar and pray Taraweeh. This huge increase in Umrah bookings was led by markets such as the UK and Belgium, closely followed by Türkiye.

To meet this demand, we have developed new unique features to help our customers find the hotel most suited to their needs, such as filtering by walking distance from the Haram or whether or not the hotel has a free shuttle service as well as features such as Kaaba-view rooms.

Are Muslim travellers increasingly keen to visit sustainable destinations?

In common with other travellers, Muslims are also keen to travel as sustainably as possible. Islam places a big emphasis on the wonders of the natural world and also on, for example, provenance and quality of food, so it’s not surprising that these aspects are important to Muslims.

Although this isn’t a trend we cater for specifically, we do notice that customers highlight these concerns, for example about food wastage in hotels. We also see that many of our customers are keen to find destinations which allow them to experience local culture, history and cuisine more fully. 

In the Maldives, for example, we are now finding that rather than staying in 5 star resorts, many of our customers prefer to book guest houses on local ‘dry’ islands, which are not only cheaper, but where they get to experience a more authentic, way of life, meeting local people and immersing themselves in the culture.

Ufuk Seçgin, chief marketing officer, HalalBooking 

What are the key trends you expect to see during Hajj and Eid this year?

We don’t offer Hajj packages ourselves, but what we are seeing is an increased awareness from our customers of the possibilities offered by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, outside the Hajj season.

As mentioned before, Umrah, has been a huge growth area for us and we predict that the next big thing will be the expansion of Umrah+ as a travel concept. 

We already find that pilgrims are spending longer in Makkah and Madinah to explore historic sites, especially those significant in the Seerah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). What is starting to happen now is that customers are branching out further and spending time in Jeddah and on the Red Sea coast before or after their Umrah and visiting places like Al-Ula. New resorts are starting to open up catering to the requirements of halal-conscious tourists, so we see this being a big destination for the future.

Naturally, Eid is always a popular time for holidays, whether it’s heading to the nearest coast or enjoying a spa break. Türkiye and Morocco are our most popular beach destinations, but our customers are becoming increasingly adventurous choosing the Maldives, Qatar, Egypt or Dubai for sunny beaches and city breaks as diverse as Paris, New York or Istanbul.

What are the priorities of Muslim Gen Z travellers?

As Gen Z travellers are generally still in education or just starting out on their careers, affordability is a big priority. This is coupled with the fact that they are very internet savvy, so are always online on the hunt for the best deals and bargains.

Increasingly, their travel is shaped by social media and many follow influencers, which informs their choice of destination. Rather than reading articles, as their parents may have done, they are drawn to video and images for inspiration. Our customers mainly come from European countries such as the UK, Germany, France and Belgium and what we see is a resurgence in interest in their faith from those at the beginning of their spiritual journey, so they have an interest in exploring their Muslim culture and travelling to countries where this is a strong element. 

Many have been inspired by TV dramas – Netflix is responsible for those visiting Türkiye, in particular the former Ottoman capitals of Istanbul and Bursa, following in the footsteps of Ertugrul and Osman, for example.

Other popular destinations in terms of exploring Muslim heritage are Andalucia in Spain and Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Lately, Uzbekistan with its historical cities of Samarkand and Bukhara is also attracting more adventurous visitors to explore the centuries old universities, from which world-renowned Muslim scholars such as Muhammad al-Khwarizmi, Abu Nasr Farabi, Abu Rayhan Biruni, Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ulughbeg emerged.

What are the key elements that will define the future of Muslim-friendly travel?

As the strength of the halal economy has grown and second- and third-generation Muslim populations in Europe have become increasingly affluent and adventurous with their travel choices, the worldwide travel industry has had to pay attention to the needs of Muslim travellers.

Companies such as ours play a key role in this, educating mainstream hotel partners about existing facilities which will appeal to Muslim guests. This could be as simple as removing alcohol from the minibar in a room, highlighting halal food options on a menu or showcasing the availability of women-only days or hours in a spa or swimming pool.

This increase in cultural and religious sensitivity in the mainstream is extremely important for improving travel for all Muslims, increasing awareness that meeting our needs doesn’t begin and end with halal food, but also extends to prayer spaces, washing facilities, single-sex leisure amenities and more. 

Resorts in the Maldives, for example, are offering beach pool villas, which are fully secluded, to ensure that guests can sunbathe and swim in their own private pool, without being visible from the beach or a neighbouring villa, which is especially valuable to our customers.

Some of these trends do in fact coincide with movements in the general population – for example, away from excessive alcohol consumption, to an awareness that many wish to avoid alcohol, not just for faith but also for reasons of health and wellbeing. We also see that destinations as diverse as Spain and Japan are focusing specifically on attracting Muslim tourists and developing services to appeal to this niche market.

At the same time, there has been the emergence of a dedicated halal travel sector, with Türkiye at its epicentre, focused on the resort in Alanya, where there are now around 20 halal-friendly resort hotels, 6 of which have a dedicated women-only beach.

More such resorts are opening in different areas of the country to cater to the growing demand. On a smaller scale, we are also seeing an increase in resort hotels offering similar facilities in Muslim countries such as Morocco, but also in European countries such as Spain. 

One of the elements which is focusing attention on the needs of Muslim women is the increased awareness of the extent to which their choices are being limited in certain western countries, of which France is the most extreme.

There has been an increase in legislation restricting the clothing choices of Muslim women, pushed by an increasingly intolerant right-wing narrative sweeping across the west.

The flip side of this negative trend is that others who are more attuned to the rights of women to make their own decisions, are starting to take notice of the double standards applied towards Muslim women, which will hopefully result in a more welcoming environment in the future.

There is no doubt in my mind that the needs of Muslim travellers will take an increasingly central role in the tourism industry in the future.