Global travel industry gears up for Muslim tourist boom

An expected worldwide boom in Muslim tourism was reflected in the growing availability of amenities such as halal spas and airport prayer rooms, experts said.

Thanks to their growing number and affluence, Muslims — especially from the oil-rich Middle East — were traveling like never before, and it was a trend that looked set to gather pace.

Spending by Muslim tourists, growing faster than the global rate, was forecast to reach US$192 billion a year by 2020, up from $126 billion in 2011, according to a study by two companies specializing in the market.

The study, made available to AFP, was conducted in 47 countries by Singapore-based halal travel specialist Crescentrating, along with DinarStandard, a US-based firm that tracks the Muslim lifestyle market.

Crescentrating chief executive Fazal Bahardeen said Muslim-majority states such as Egypt, Malaysia and Indonesia were already favorite destinations, but non-Islamic countries are now "taking a serious look" at Muslim holidaymakers.

Malaysia, the leading destination according to the findings, attracts Muslim visitors even during the ongoing fasting month of Ramadan.

Mohammed Ali Alali, 23, a petroleum engineering student from Dammam, Saudi Arabia, went there on honeymoon with his bride, a 20-year-old medical student.

"It's not that far from Saudi Arabia, and it's less expensive to travel here rather than Europe. It's also an Islamic country, so that helps in many ways, like to find a mosque and Arabic food," he said after breaking fast at an Arabic restaurant in the capital Kuala Lumpur.

The availability of halal food tops the list of Muslim travelers' requirements, according to the survey.

Destinations such as Thailand and Australia, especially the Gold Coast, were already taking into account these travelers' needs in their services and facilities, Fazal told AFP.

That includes prayer rooms at airports and hotels, halal restaurants and even spas adapted to religious requirements.

"Why not try Gold Coast for a cooler Ramadan this year?" proposes the tourism website of Australia's Queensland state.

"With a long history of welcoming Middle Eastern visitors and a large resident community, facilities for Muslims in Gold Coast, Australia, keep getting better every year."

The Economist Intelligence Unit said in a March report that meeting the needs of the world's 1.8 billion Muslims was fuelling business opportunities in a range of sectors.

"From food and Islamic finance, the industry is spreading its wings into pharmaceuticals, fashion and tourism, among many other areas," it said, noting that more than half of the world's Muslim population is aged 24 or younger, many of them well educated.

Thailand is hungrily eyeing the Muslim travel boom.

Its tourism authority — which has an office in Dubai — was promoting halal spas for Muslim tourists, who require strict privacy for male and female clients.

It also organized a month-long festival of Thai cuisine in the United Arab Emirates from 8 June to 7 July.

Crescentrating's study ranked Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport the most Islam-friendly airport in a non-Muslim country.

And it found that tourists from the Gulf — Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — were the sector's biggest spenders.

Gulf countries accounted for 37 percent of Muslim tourist spending in 2011 even though they represent a mere three percent of the global Muslim population.

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