By Lamin Saho
Tourism as the world’s largest business is a complex system of integrated parts. At present, tourism is recognised as the largest industry in the world considering gross output, value added, and employment and tax contributions. Tourism is undeniably a powerful tool for development and developing fraternity.
Changes in life style, technology, values and behaviour are key driving forces impacting on tourism. Increasingly tourists are more knowledgeable, experienced, independent, discerning and more quality and value for money conscious. In recognition of the dynamic nature of tourism and the ever increasing new trends impacting on tourism, coupled with need for new packages to attract new market segments and satisfy consumer demand, there is a growing felt need for new holiday ideas in the travel and hospitality industry.
As such, the Gambian tourism and hospitality industry is also keen to follow suit and embrace this development by paying more attention to niche tourism, such as Muslim Friendly Tourism, which is trending in global holiday business.
Muslim travellers refer to those travellers “who do not wish to compromise their basic faith based needs while travelling for a purpose, which is permissible”. Given that 26% of the world’s population is projected to be Muslim in 2030, Halal Tourism expenditure is expected to soar around US$240 billion in five years, and buttressed by the fact that 50% of Muslims are under the age of 25 years (young optimists) various destinations both with majority Muslim populations or not are racing to develop and tap the potentials of this emerging niche.
In view of the forgoing, Muslim Friendly Tourism is poised to become a major niche, and authoritative studies have pointed out that Muslim travellers are on the increase and a significant portion of those travelling for whatever motivation would like to have an element of halal tourism during their travels. This is informed by the fact that most Muslims view Islam as a way of life. But if the case of eco-tourism, which made a lot of buzz, and eventually fizzled out, is any guide, we need to approach this new niche in a more serious and strategic fashion.
Muslim Friendly Tourism
– A gradual approach
Initially, certain aspects of Muslim friendly tourism will have to be developed within the context of a conventional tourism structure so as to cater to a specific segment of Muslim travellers. This is critical because our core product remains the conventional tourism products revolving around leisure tourism. In a nutshell, we need to create enclaves of MFT to complement, not upstage our existing products revolving around sea, sun and sand. According to experts, “Muslim tourism is not about changing or creating new products and services. Instead, destinations would only need to make adaptations and adjustments to fully accommodate the needs of Muslims” which according to authoritative studies, include among others, providing halal food, appropriate prayer facilities and related faith based preferences such as water -friendly facilities in hotel rooms.
The concept of Muslim Friendly Tourism is at its infancy but developed in certain countries, mainly destinations with majority Muslim populations and members of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) except for few exceptions such as the UK and Singapore. However, it is generally recognised that OIC member states are in different stages of development in terms of the availability of core and basic products – both demand and supply side of MFT. As such member states have been grouped in to 4 clusters in terms of their level and degree of development in terms of MFT. These clusters are group A – LEADERS such as Malaysia, Turkey, UAE, and group B best positioned such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Indonesia, Oman, Jordan and Morocco. Group C potential for growth referring to markets that offer unique opportunities such as Kuwait or Iran and group D need to develop.
In terms of awareness and level of product development – travel hospitality services, Destination Gambia is ranked among the last category/cluster (need to develop), and for this category studies have recommended training, awareness creation and capacity building targeting hospitality trainers, and, industry stakeholders such as hoteliers, ground tour operators, tourist guides to be able to build capacity and train more people on MFT.
Critical success factors
The next important and critical area is the demand and supply side of MFT. Given that tourists crave novel experiences in new destinations and in this regard the supply side which entails travel hospitality service, products and facilities such as transport services, transport terminals, accommodation services, attraction and activities, travel agents and tour operators, human capital and destinations as a whole – need to be adjusted and in certain instances make adaptations with Islamic touch at destination level.
CraHFT model or Crescent Rating Halal Friendly Travel Reference model is used to evaluate destinations supply side key themes. The objective is to enable a destination to better understand its positioning in terms of Muslim friendliness of its offerings of hotels, restaurants, shopping malls, transport, tourist attractions and the hospitality industry.
From the supply side, MFT has been mainly driven by the accommodation sector with hotels, resorts and other accommodation providers taking initiatives to ensure that Muslim visitors are comfortable.
According to authoritative studies, the following are the guidelines for hotels to cater to the need to have and good to have services;
Need to have
· Halal food availability
· Rooms marked with the qibla direction
· Ability to provide temporary prayer rooms for meetings and events held at hotel
· Water-friendly toilets
· Ramadan facilities offered.
Catering to the nice/good to have services will also require the following;
· No non-halal activities (no alcohol, discotheque or casino)
· Swimming pools and gyms that are either segregated or provide different things for males and females
· For beach resorts, areas for males and females to enjoy in privacy
Conference and event venues
· Catering to the business visitor segment for conferences and major events will require the event venue to be able to provide the following services.
· Halal food availability
· Prayer room with wudhu facilities
· Water-friendly toilets
· Raise awareness about MFT, targeting not only the tourism stakeholders in the private sector, but the public sector and the wider population.
· Given the growing Muslim population and their increasing clout in terms of disposable income, there is the need to underscore the urgency of developing MFT products and services in Gambia Tourism.
· Underscore the importance of increasing investment in MFT particularly through utilising public – private partnership.
· Undertake more capacity building measures, initially targeting the tourism stakeholders, both public and private as well as all the key players in the tourism and hospitality industry including service providers at all levels on MFT.
In our quest to diversify and enrich our tourism offer, a gradual foray in to Muslim Friendly Tourism along the lines outlined above will not be farfetched. This will go a long way to make our destination more attractive to a brand new segment, which is growing in importance and is very lucrative. However, given that our existing tourism product is geared towards conventional tourism, we need a more realistic approach and not take short cuts. MFT demand and supply side issues should be thoroughly studied and efforts should be made to ensure prior consultation and training of tourism stakeholders on the nitty-gritty of Muslim Friendly Tourism for the evolution of informed decisions on the new product.
Lamin Saho, the author served as director of marketing at the defunct GTA and GTBoard and director of planning at the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. Currently on sick leave.