The modern Muslim traveller: Still an untapped segment?

The Tourism ministry in Indonesia recently announced that it was looking to hold a sales-led event in three cities in China to push for halal tourist destinations in Indonesia. These three cities are namely Xi’an, Yinchuan and Beijing.

The announcement comes at a time when many in the travel industry eye the Muslim traveller whose global expenditure is set to reach US$192 billion by 2020, representing about 14% of the world’s total travel expenditure. According to a study by CrescentRating, Muslim-friendly tourism is also expected to grow by about 4.79% by 2020.

Picking up on this trend, several airline operators have already started to cater to this segment. European airline Air France and KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), both under the Air France KLM group, admitted to getting more aggressive in targeting Muslim travellers in the region.

In conjunction with the launch of its Dreamliner 787 and new Kuala Lumpur - Amsterdam route last year, Air France KLM partnered with the “Have Halal ,Will Travel” (HHWT) website to push out branded content in the form of videos and content pieces. HHWT is also helping the Air France KLM group (AFKL) on its upcoming autumn campaign which runs from September to November 2017. The campaign targets to get more Muslim travellers from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia on board its plane in visiting its European destinations such as Italy, London and Amsterdam.

Air France KLM also said both of airlines had taken initiatives to offer special meal options to include Muslim meals. To promote its initiatives in Indonesia, KLM exclusively partnered with local celebrity chef and TV personality Farah Quinn. As part of the deal, she designed exclusive in-flight menus for its business and economy class on KLM tail-end flights between Jakarta - Kuala Lumpur and Denpasar – Singapore routes.

Meanwhile, airline operators out of Asia Pacific such as Scoot are also eyeing this lucrative piece of pie. Scoot, for example, also has a wide selection of halal food on its flight. Scoot also works with its tourism partners such as Taiwan Tourism Board and Tourism and Events Queensland, to highlight the lesser known culinary and attraction itineraries that are Muslim-friendly.

“While Muslim travellers are becoming more adventurous in their holiday choices, the availability of halal meals remains a key consideration for the airline,” Jacqueline Loh, head of marketing of product and ancillary at Budget Aviation Holdings, which owns TigerAir and Scoot, said. She added that a “significant proportion” of its targeted passengers are Hajj pilgrim travellers from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. As such, the airline offers direct flights to Jeddah via Scoot’s Singapore hub using its spacious 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

The non-stop flight between Singapore and Jeddah saves four hours of travel time compared to Singapore Airlines’ prior services with a stop in Dubai, and is 30% to 40% less costly compared to those going through transit stops, Loh said.

Meanwhile, for AirAsia, Spencer Lee, its head of commercial said the low-cost airline had always been eyeing this "untapped pool of audience". He added that there are two main challenges faced by this segment of travellers that the airline needs to consider.

First, is ensuring that the destinations and other industry players are also able to cater to these set of traveller's needs.

"For an airline, we are part of a larger tourism ecosystem and we believe that everyone needs to play their part, if we are all to succeed in tapping into this market," Lee said.

Secondly, it is about educating the travellers and breaking the mental fear barrier for them to consider destinations which on the surface, would seem unlikely to have halal offerings available to them.

If these two challenges can be addressed, chances are we will likely to see this modern Muslim traveller market grow even more in the next few years.

The needs of a modern Muslim traveller

Meanwhile, the Singapore Tourism Board (STB) which also underwent a recent rebranding, said it often works with tourism industry partners on a range of initiatives such as providing more halal certified kitchens at tourism touch points.

It is also partnering with travel agents to better cater to Muslim travellers’ needs. For example, STB has issued a Muslim visitor guide for Malaysian and Indonesian travellers. The guide includes information on halal dining options, Muslim-friendly hotels, and locations of prayer rooms and mosques. In the past, the board has also worked with influencers such as Siti Saleha and Aaron Aziz for the Malaysian market, and Indonesian TV programme Sajadah Dunia to showcase Singapore as a Muslim-friendly destination.

"Singapore’s rich multicultural heritage is reflected in many areas, such as our cuisine, architecture, and art. Together with a concentration of Muslim-friendly dining options and amenities, this has helped make us an attractive and welcoming destination for Muslim travellers," Koh said.

And while the tourism board in Singapore is certainly doing its part to attract the modern Muslim traveller, Mikhail Goh, CEO and co-founder of HHWT said, “Our work with various brands and tourism boards in this region show that there is still a lot more room for growth and engagement in this segment.”

He added that most brands still do not understand this market well enough to communicate and reach out to them.

And while many brands might shy away from speaking to the audience, a recent study by HHWT showed that much like Millennials, modern Muslim travellers are young, affluent and experiment-driven. Moreover, 95.6% of respondents set aside a part of their savings for travelling. This group values authentic local experiences, has a strong desire to immerse in the local culture and try local halal food when they travel.

The study interviewed a total of 1,708 Muslim travellers from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore between January and March this year. Respondents were surveyed on three main topics - their attitude towards travel, the planning process for their trip, and the considerations that they have when choosing destinations, flights and accommodations. The study also said this group consistently chose independent travel over packaged tours. About 52.2% of modern Muslim travellers plan their itineraries all the time when they travel, instead of following tour packages.

Travel search site Wego said it is also seeing an obvious year-on-year growth in travel dollars from the modern Muslim travellers in the region. James Huang, market development manager of Asia for Wego, pointed out that the areas of growth among Muslim travellers are specifically stemming from increasing spend on hotels and a longer travel duration.

He added that Muslim travellers in this region are also found to be highly engaged on social media and communications/chat forums. Many turn to these channels for guidance and inspiration. Wego said it has invested more in content marketing, including promoted content via social media.

Interestingly, Wego said, in recent years, it has found a greater variety of searches by the modern Muslim travellers to less traditional Muslim destinations.

“Generally, Muslim travellers place a higher emphasis on family travel, and with the increase in growth in the regional economy, they tend to spend the income on a higher level of comfort for their family when they travel. They are very unique in terms of their travels needs, and dates of travel,” Huang added.