Hotels in Middle East to be divided into two classifications; halal and non-halal
Everywhere in Dubai there are hotels rising out of the sand. While most are designed to appeal to the hordes of western tourists and foreign businessmen, there are increasing demand for ‘halal hotels’ as the emirate continues to lure in conservative Arab and Muslim travelers, experts said. The growing popularity has led to calls for Sharia-compliant hotels that are not only alcohol-free, but also cater to the regional sensitivities and religious observations, such as strict separation for men and women in counters, pools, health club facilities, elevators, and wait-staffs, something that may ultimately lead to a Muslim or gender-based only hotels.
“There is definitely a demand for more Sharia-compliant hotels in Dubai,” said Mohammed Nasir, the social media manager for Crescentrating, a website that rates hotels around the world based on how Muslim-friendly they are. “The demand is increasing all the time, particularly for tourists from Saudi Arabia.” While he said there are a growing number of dry hotels in Dubai, a positive step, there is a need for hotels to go further.
“Many female travelers opt to not swim in the pools, because men are also swimming there too,” Mr Nasir said. “If there is a separate pool for the ladies, sometimes they tend to be more attracted to the hotels of that nature.” The comments come after the end of the Hotel Show in Dubai last week during which Hamad Buamim, the chief executive of the Dubai Chamber, said more hotels were going dry in a bid to cater to the Saudi tourism market.
According to statistics from the Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, there were 710,000 Saudi tourists visiting Dubai in the first half of this year. Last year, there were over 1.12 million Saudi tourists in the whole of the year. One of the most popular alcohol-free hotels is the Gloria, which owns two branches and consistently sees high occupancy rates of at least 70 per cent.
Chris Hewett, from TRI consulting, however said it is unlikely that major international chains would operate a dry hotel in a wet market. “Dry hotels normally generate less returns, from an investment perspective, than what a wet hotel would,” he explained. “There’s two main reasons for that. The first is that they often don’t command as high an occupancy as a wet hotel would. Secondly, the revenues, especially through food and beverage, are often lower.”
“In markets in Saudi Arabia, where the whole country is dry, it’s not an issue,” he added. “What’s causing this trend towards dry hotels in Dubai is that there’s a lot more investors coming in from Saudi Arabia and the GCC and investing here. They are obviously choosing to develop a dry hotel on the basis of their own religious beliefs, not necessarily a desire to only serve a clientele that’s looking for a dry hotel.”
Dubai-based hotel group Almulla recently unveiled a Shariah-compliant brand portfolio that will consist of 30 halal properties by the end of next year. The company has launched the world’s first Sharia hotel back in 2008, and hope to have 150 properties worldwide; including 35 in Europe by the end of 2013. Another group, Shaza Hotels, meanwhile, plans to have 30 halal hotels either under development or open in the region within 10 years.
Despite the growth of the Muslim traveler market, Shariah-compliant hotels and Dubai business hotels are clearly aimed at a niche market, said Guy Wilkinson, a partner with Gloster Management Consultants, a Dubai-based hotel consultancy. “By not serving alcohol you are definitely going to put off some Western guests, and once you start narrowing down your potential market, you are going to face a challenge.”
So how difficult is it for these Dubai business hotels to compete without alcohol revenue? “Alcohol sales are immensely profitable and constitute a sizeable portion of revenue for many Dubai business hotels” said David Lang, a senior consultant with TRI Hospitality Consulting. “In our experience, international hotel management companies are reluctant to operate Shariah-compliant hotels as they are unwilling to accept the loss of revenues and they see the availability of alcohol to be an expectation of their guests.”
Wilkinson has seen cases where guests simply get up and walk out of a restaurant when they are told that the menu is dry. “Not serving alcohol has a direct impact not only on the bottom line in terms of loss of alcohol revenues, it also has an indirect impact by reducing the number of people who will want to eat at the hotel’s restaurant and limiting the number of people who may wish to stay at the hotel,” he noted.
In secular Turkey, ‘halal hotels’ have been drawing the attention of Turkish citizens rather than visiting Arabs, according to industry experts, Turkish newspaper Hurriyet Daily News reported. Turkey’s Crescent Tours, which specializes in halal travel, says, “Halal holiday is a new product in the tourism industry providing full holiday services in accordance with Islamic beliefs and practices.” The halal hotels offer visitors gender segregated beaches and swimming pools as well as halal food and non-alcoholic drinks as part of the “halal holiday experience,” it explains.
“Veiled women are able to wear swimsuits or bikinis while they swim in separate pools, or in the sea off separate beaches. In addition, some unveiled women prefer these hotels, in order to avoid being disturbed by the attitude of some men,” the resort General Manager, mer Solmaz, told Hurriyet Daily News. Fatima, a 29-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent, says: “Here I can relax in my bikini and soak up the vitamin D at the same time, while mister gets on and does his own thing. I haven’t found a place like this anywhere else in the world. This is where I can feel freedom. It’s wonderful being apart from the men.”