By Nathasha Sharma
For many of us, the joy of traveling to a foreign country during the summer gives us the perfect opportunity to dive in and sample a different culture, engage with locals, gorge on traditional cuisine and wander through bustling markets under the warm summer sun.
But with Ramadan falling during the end-of-school summer period, many travelers observing the Holy Month often prefer the comfort of their own home, family and friends rather than deal with the difficulties of fasting all day in a non-Muslim country. In most Muslim countries, locals, tourists and non-Muslims are expected to observe the fast while in public as a sign of respect with many eateries closed during the day. In non-Muslim countries, however, this is not the case.
“My concept of a holiday is to take a break from everything related to real life,” said Moroccan sales manager Madiha Zoubiri. “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.”
However, many tourism authorities, hotels and airlines are offering flexible hours, halal services and cultural events to welcome and cater to Muslim tourists looking to travel this time of year. And why wouldn’t they?
Muslim tourists accounted for an estimated US $126 billion, just over 12 percent of the total expenditure on travel, leisure and business in 2011, according to the Global Muslim Lifestyle Tourism Market 2012 study by Dinar Standard and Crescent-Rating.
“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 travelers take home with them and will encourage repeat holidays or other family and friends to visit us.”
With unique services, activities and amenities catered toward fasting guests, here are a few countries you should definitely consider if you’re looking to get away this Ramadan:
1. United Kingdom
With one of the largest Muslim communities living in a non-Muslim country, Britain is an ideal place to visit during the Holy Month and help visitors and tourists to feel like home.
“[London] is a true melting pot of the world’s cultures and has a thriving Middle Eastern scene,” said Annique Labuschagne, manager of Gulf markets for VisitBritain. “Here, travelers 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.”
Many hotels across London work to accommodate the needs of fasting guests including late-night requests and instructing the housekeeping staff not to clean their rooms during the day to avoid interrupting their sleep. They also employ Arabic speaking staff to cater to their non-English speaking visitors as well. The highlight of Ramadan in the region, however, is the annual Eid festival celebrated in Trafalgar Square, London that includes live music, delicious cuisine from across the globe as well as exciting activities for children including face-painting, calligraphy, henna and sports. The UK is sure to be a peaceful yet exhilarating place to visit with the family this Ramadan.
Despite the challenging humidity and heat during the summer, Malaysia has consistently topped the list as the top “halal holiday destination” for Muslim tourists. In largely Muslim Malaysia, Muslim-run eateries don’t usually open until mid-afternoon.
One of the highlights of Ramadan in Malaysia are the daily Pasar Ramadans (open-air food markets) that include an unbelievable variety of dishes that range from the classic cendol (coconut milk and sugar) in plastic bags and Kari ayan (curry chicken) to traditional Ramadan staples like dates and baklava to make Arab guests feel right at home.
There are also mosques across the Asian nation making Malaysia a travel favorite for Muslim tourists.
It should come as no surprise that Turkey’s tourism industry booms during the Ramadan season given the fact that it is closer to the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries and the pleasant weather during the summer. Turks and visitors are advised to refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public during daylight hours to be polite and respect people who are fasting. While restaurants are open during the day however, most of them do cover their windows and doors to prevent fasting individuals from getting distracted. Many restaurants also offer special Ramadan menus at night and often refrain from serving alcoholic beverages this time of year.
“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,” said Mustafa Özdemir, the cultural and information attaché for the Turkish Consulate General Cultural & Information Office.
After breaking fast at iftar, different parts of the city are lit with strings of colored lights, mosques are illuminated and a celebratory, carnival atmosphere takes over the streets of Turkey with booths set up all over town selling religious books and paraphernalia, traditional snacks, tokens and ornaments for children. Thousands of locals and visitors also gather around with the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, with friends, family and picnic baskets for iftar on the lawn.
Eager to cater to the growing Muslim tourism market, Spanish tourism authorities offers a variety of city tours and halal services that offer visitors the chance to see both the traditional and modern side of Spain, including the European country’s art, culture, cuisine, shopping and sports, particularly those that celebrate its Arab and Islamic legacy.
According to Carlos Hernandez, tourism promotion coordinator for Spain in the Gulf region, hotels also offer specific services to cater to the needs of its Muslim guests including “details like a small ‘Islamic chapel’ or an indication of the direction of Mecca” that he says “can make a big difference.” While many hotels are 100% halal, others do include a special halal menu that include “recommendations of dishes that combine fish, vegetables and fruit translated into Arabic.”
Spain’s SHA clinic also offer special detox programs to cleanse the body during Ramadan. These programs include traditional dishes and juices for iftar and suhoor as well as medical consultants, massages, nutrition advisers, workshops and exercising areas within the clinic.
With sunny winters providing perfect escape for Muslim tourists looking to escape the oppressive summer heat, Australia is also a great travel destination for fasting visitors.
In the Gold Coast, known for its sun-kissed beaches, the city has also opened prayer rooms in shopping malls and theme parks with many leading hotels providing halal food and copies of the Quran and prayer mats in its guest rooms. The Ramadan Lounge at the Courtyard Marriott hotel in Surfers Paradise offers fasting residents and visitors a comfortable place to break their daily fast with dates, snacks and coffee for free, three evenings a week.
They also provide a special Gold Coast Muslim Visitors Guide listing all of the city’s halal-certified restaurants.
6. United Arab Emirates
Not surprisingly, the United Arab Emirates is another popular halal holiday destination for fasting visitors who are looking to get away but not venture too far from home. With the aim to transform the city of Dubai into a hub of Islamic culture and learning, the special “Ramadan in Dubai” program provides residents and visitors with a wide variety of cultural, social and spiritual activities including the Ramadan Night market, summer camps, the annual Ramadan Majlis that offer some of the finest Arabic cuisine and annual Holy Quran recital competitions for students and adults.
“With Dubai being a leading family tourism destination, and home to many cultures, ‘Ramadan in Dubai’ will showcase the emirate’s diverse tourism offerings within a modern Arabic setting while still retaining its Islamic values and roots,” said Laila Mohammad Suhail, CEO of Dubai Festivals and Retail Establishment.
For those really looking to enjoy the lavishsness that the UAE has to offer, many luxury hotels lay out elaborate, Bedouin-like mega-tents that can seat hundreds of people looking to break fast in style. Complete with live cooking stations, performers, shisha parlors, and rows of delicious food including Lebanese, Egyptian and Turkish cuisine and of course, Emirati, they are definitely an experience for any local or visitor.
Even getting to and from a destination is becoming easier for fasting travelers as airlines including British Airways, Qantas flights, Emirates and Etihad seek to provide special Ramadan services and accommodate 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,” said Aubrey Tiedt, the vice-president of guest services for Etihad. “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.”
So for those looking to get away this Ramadan, get booking, make reservations and have a delightful experience. Ramadan Kareem!