On the sixth floor of an upscale hotel in the Kuala Lumpur suburb of Ampang, Quranic verses are piped through loudspeakers in the hallway 24 hours a day.
In the guestrooms, a Quran sits on the bedside table, and garments for men and women to wear while praying are neatly folded on the bed. In the bathrooms, a dedicated ablution tap is provided for guests to perform the ritual cleansing that Muslims must complete before praying.
Known as the “Islamic floor”, these rooms are reserved for Muslim guests only.
Downstairs in the lobby, the call to prayer sounds five times a day, calling guests and staff to the surau, or prayer room, where one of the hotel’s four resident imams will lead the faithful.
The De Palma group, which claims to offer Malaysia’s first Sharia, or Islamic-compliant hotels, is one of a growing number of tourism operators around the world seeking to appeal to the burgeoning number of Muslim travellers who represent one of the fastest-growing tourism markets globally.
“People are looking for something which suits their lifestyle,” said Muhamad Azmir Bin Abdul Rahim, operations manager at the three-star Ampang hotel, one of the group’s four properties in Malaysia. “They feel that they need to come and stay here where they can get all these things like the halal food and the surau.”
As incomes rise in many Islamic countries, more Muslims are seeking to holiday in places where they can meet the requirements of their faith – and it’s about much more than simply leaving pork and alcohol, considered forbidden in Islam, off the menu.
From providing prayer rooms at shopping centers to making hotel pools available only for women at certain times, more tourism operators are striving to meet the growing demand for services that are halal, or permissible under Islam.
It’s a market they can ill-afford to ignore.
In 2011, Muslim tourists spent $126bn on holiday-related expenses, a figure expected to grow to $200bn by 2020, according to CrescentRating.com, a website offering “halal-friendly” travel information that produced a research report on the market earlier this year with DinarStandard, a US-based marketing research and advisory firm that focuses on Muslim markets.
“These travellers are becoming much more adventurous in wanting to explore more destinations, and as long as you provide them with at least the basics, they will travel,” said Fazal Bahardeen, founder and chief executive of CrescentRating.
The report found that Muslim tourists contributed 12.3 percent of global travel expenditure in 2011, up from just 3.5 percent in 1995, making them the second-fastest-growing tourism market in the world, behind Chinese tourists.
Mr Bahardeen said while the largest number of Muslim tourists came from the Gulf countries, Muslims in Southeast Asian nations like Indonesia and Malaysia are also travelling more, along with Muslims living in Western Europe.
|Malaysia received the most Muslim tourists in 2011, says report [Liz Gooch/Al Jazeera]
He said the key things for tourism operators to consider when trying to attract Muslim tourists is the need to make halal food easily available and to provide prayer facilities.
“If you have a shopping center or a theme park where you want them to spend eight hours, you better have some halal food and prayer rooms,” said Mr Bahardeen, adding that hotel rooms should also have the qibla – an arrow indicating the direction of Mecca.
As competition for Muslim tourist dollars intensifies, Malaysia claimed the top spot by attracting the most Muslim tourists in 2011, according to the CrescentRating report.
Mr Bahardeen said Muslims felt comfortable in Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country, because most food was halal and tourists wearing Muslim attire fit in easily with locals.
While Turkey and the United Arab Emirates were the next most popular destinations, many countries with minority Muslim populations also featured in the top places for Muslims to visit, including Singapore, Russia, China, France, Thailand and Italy.
In Australia, the Gold Coast – the city renowned for its beaches and theme parks in the state of Queensland – is also trying to draw Muslim tourists. It has opened prayer rooms in shopping malls and theme parks, and some leading hotels provide halal food and copies of the Quran in guest rooms.
For the past three years, during the fasting month of Ramadan, the government has helped organise for Muslim tourists to break fast together at one of the city’s leading hotels.
The effort appears to be paying off, with Queensland recording a 28 percent increase in the number of visitors from the Middle East in the first four months of this year, compared to the same period last year, according to Tourism Queensland.
“Muslim travelers appreciate that we understand their cultural differences and needs,” said Andrew Oldfield, Tourism Queensland’s marketing manager for Gulf countries. “It leaves a lasting impression and hopefully will be a small part of larger stories and positive experiences that travellers take home with them and will encourage repeat holidays or other family and friends to visit us.”
Mr Bahardeen said Thailand was also actively courting Muslim tourists. Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport has opened prayer rooms and made halal food available in public areas and transit areas, while spas are trying to attract Muslims by emphasising privacy, with separate areas for men and women, he added.
Mr Bahardeen said while some airlines like Malaysia Airlines and Singapore Airlines sourced their food from kitchens that were halal-certified, many of their competitors needed to do more to cater for Muslims. He said finding space to pray onboard could often be a problem.
“If you ask them, they often let you pray near the door or near the kitchen,” said Mr Bahardeen, whose website provides a calculator to help travellers work out prayer times when travelling across time zones.
|Prayer garments and the Quran can be found in every room on the Islamic floor of the De Palma Hotel [Liz Gooch/Al Jazeera]
While awareness of the need to cater for Muslim guests is slowly growing, Malaysia’s De Palma Hotel group realised the market’s potential earlier than many of its competitors.
It began providing services specifically for Muslims in 2006, and now attracts mainly Muslim guests from Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United States, Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Singapore and India as well as Malaysia.
Female staff are required to wear a headscarf, all food is sourced from suppliers who have had their produce certified as halal, and the pool is open specifically for women for a few hours every morning.
Religious scholars and imams from around the world often give lectures in the prayer room, and every Tuesday night guests can attend a free session where Islamic scholars translate the Quran from Arabic into English.
At the reception desk, guests can leave queries about Islam in a box marked “Ask Ustaz”, or religious teacher, who answers their written queries via email or phone.
Mr Azmir, the operations manager, said the hotel group was considering expanding overseas in places such as the Middle East, Korea and Myanmar.
“What marks us apart from the other hotels is the Islamic concept and in time to come, I hope there will be more Islamic hotels,” he said.
On a recent afternoon in the hotel coffee shop, where green signs on each table provide prayers in Arabic and Malay, Amran Anuar, a Malaysian living in Britain, said he appreciated not having to worry about whether the food was halal when staying at the hotel.
He also likes not having to go far to find a prayer room when it’s time to pray. “I think it’s a good idea they have this kind of thing,” he said.