Our interview with popular blogger Elena a.k.a Muslim Travel Girl attempts to unravel the “Halal Tourism” experience, and its role in mending perceptions of Islam

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Our previous journey traversed the bustling lanes of Halal Tourism through an interview with MuslimBreak.com, a holiday booking website catering to travellers seeking Muslim-friendly conditions during travel and stay. While the interview gave readers an insight on what goes behind delivering an enjoyable stay that accommodates religious needs, we joined the caravan of a passionate globetrotter who is not just an audience, but also an active promoter and blogger within the burgeoning sphere.

Elena Nikolova – now popular with the moniker “Muslim Travel Girl” after her blog – was bitten by the travel bug early when she fronted her family-run hotel on the Greek island Corfu. The only member conversant in English to assist guests and staff, Elena says she often found herself scanning the map to imagine a retreat – an exercise that rides on the universal language of exploration.

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Elena rates Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates as one of her favourite destinations 

MuslimTravelGirl is the only blog tracking the Halal Tourism market as part of the frequent flyer travel websites curator BoardingArea, which enjoys an Alexa global rank of 5,450 and 1,484 in the United States. The blog exudes fun with a tinge of elegance with pastel shades; and provides latest news in travel & hospitality, travel tips for a variety of destination, and hotel reviews. An interactive map – different from the one a teenage Elena once held – greets you in the ‘destinations’ tab. It displays countries that couldn’t wait to be explored marked with review links along with other spots that await in the ‘bucket list’.

Sharing the space is a tab titled “Muslim Friendly Travel” – a repository of Elena’s personal experiences, reflections and tips on touring the generous expanse of the earth whilst fulfilling fundamental aspects of Islam. Discovering this segment, however, did not come at the very onset of the blog’s launch – “I didn’t pursue the Halal travel industry when I started MuslimTravelGirl but it is a great thing that they now merge. The Halal economy is at the forefront as a fast developing niche. Being a Muslim, I have similar concerns with regards to travel as other people from my faith and this is an opportunity and blessing for me to inspire, support and create memories for people,” says Elena who began the writing journey two years ago.

Apart from the Halal-conscious, the blog also addresses those who wish to indulge in a memorable travel experience without paralyzing the purse with deals for cheap flights, hotels and alternative luxury experiences that don’t break the bank.

What maketh the travel ‘Halal’

In regular parlance, the term ‘Halal’ seeps in prolifically to classify meat slaughtered in-line with Islamic law of sacrifice and also in determining the permissibility of consuming food and beverage that contains porcine and/or alcohol content. Halal Tourism takes into account a cocktail of faith-based requirements of a Muslim traveller including food, prayer facilities and private areas for men and women.

According to a recent YouGov survey surveying Halal travel priorities, 64% of respondents said that prayer spaces were most essential, closely followed by Halal food (63%) and alcohol-free spaces (51%). Modestly dressed staff and women-only swimming pools were also considered important by 35% and 31% of respondents respectively.

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The Arabic inscription ‘Halal’ in red is a green signal for Muslim guests to relish meat without constraints. It may at times also indicate that the restaurant does not serve alcohol

Slightly adrift from the poll results, Elena does not seem to let gastronomical needs dictate her experience, while the land is too vast to not accommodate space for prayer. “Halal food and prayer is very important but they are not the be all and end all of travel. I know many Muslims who would refrain from visiting places if there is no Halal meat, and in my personal opinion they are missing out on a lot.  For me, being part of the experience is extremely important, even if that means staying on a vegetarian diet for days together. However, over the years I have come to observe at least one shop or restaurant selling Halal food in the city I visit.”

But there’s certainly no substitute to prayer? Elena says though the best solution is to locate a mosque, most obstacles to prayer are conceived by our own selves. According to her, “Islam is an easy religion and we can pray anywhere during the travel. Sometimes we just make it hard on ourselves. I have prayed in seemingly odd places like the Grand Canyon and airport lounges in the US with little hindrance. I also love discovering local mosques so that I meet local Muslims because I strongly believe in connecting with the natives to understand a place better”

Climbing up the stares

Start-ups, technology and the booming deployment of Islamic Banking are fuelling Halal Economy. Portals such as YURIZK and Salaam Gateway track the pulse Islamic Economy’s anchoring pillars across the globe, while mobile apps such Zabiha are resolving the Halal food conundrum. Considered as the “world’s largest guide to Halal markets and eateries,” Zabiha was developed by Shahed Amanullah who also co-organized the first Haqqathon in Abu Dhabi to identify ways in which extremism can be combated in the cyberspace.

While these efforts are facilitating its move into mainstream society, a ready familiarity of seemingly foreign terms such as “Halal” is a tall ask; with conversations centered around “Islam and travel” necessitating an explanation especially in countries where the faith may not make the best headlines. Elena suggests ways to drive this conversation without invoking awkward stares – “I don’t use the word ‘Halal’ often, instead I refer to it as ‘Muslim-friendly’. We are all travellers irrespective of the religion; it is just that we have certain requirements. When I suggest travel entities to consider Muslim travellers, they are often intrigued but also interested in knowing more about it. I think it all depends on how you present it to them and play on their curiosity by packaging it as something valuable. It is a developing space so it’s open for creativity, fun and new ideas.”

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The face behind Muslim Travel Girl at Istanbul’s iconic Hagia Sophia & Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Turkey & United Arab Emirates were ranked 2nd & 3rd in the Global Muslim Travel Index for 2015

Reaching the Millennials’ hearts, and fingertips

A PewResearch report projects that by year 2030, 29.1% of people of ages 15 to 29 will comprise of Muslims, up from 25.8% in 2010 and 20.0% in 1990. On Elena’s own admission, she focuses on Millennial Muslims like herself to infuse confidence amongst youth travellers to play the roles as both consumers and trend-setters in this young segment. Deploying the power of words and photography at her disposal, Elena is confident that some of her efforts have already reaped positive results and feedback from Muslims and the wider society – “Many of my readers are non-Muslim and they read my blog because they like my writing, the travel tips I share, and because they can learn about Muslims. I share snippets of my life, thoughts on Islam and Muslims who are share the space with everyone else. The response I have received so far is only positive that it is heartwarming to be able to spread positive energy through my work.”

To connect on platforms where Millennials drive the conversation has a natural solution in Social Media. Elena stands in favour of getting influencers on board to provide valuable content that is already blunting old-school marketing techniques in several industries. A ready audience that listens, trusts and is in sync with an online influencer, according to the blogger, creates value and engagement. But there also remains a degree of responsibility to be assumed with this popular following that can be readily tapped by businesses. “Bloggers and social media influencers need to be honest and transparent. Not everything – especially in Islam – should be done for the sake of profit. I personally don’t promote anything that won’t benefit my audience or work with a company that I don’t believe in,” says Elena whose followers across all media platforms exceed ten thousand.

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Elena  (second from right) at the World Halal Travel Summit 2015 in Abu Dhabi where her panel discussed “Social Media and Content Creation in Halal Tourism”

Marketing at a personal level too adds the zing necessary to sustain young interest. Elena was a guest speaker at the Muslim Lifestyle Expo in UK and the World Halal Travel Summit in Abu Dhabi – events poised in the guise of an opportunity for Muslim consumers and businesses to promote and collaborate ideas. They garner visibility for businesses, hotels, restaurants and resorts that provide Muslim friendly services but may lack the budget and other conditions to undertake expensive awareness campaigns. “When we are united, there is more that can be done and achieved in a shorter span. I met some amazing people at these expos that I’m now associated with on a professional level,” says Elena. She will also be speaking at the Halal Travel Conference, Turkey in March 2016.

Travel that mends perceptions of Islam

Despite being classified under the economy and tugging on to vagaries of consumerism, Elena believes that Islam is central to Halal travel discussions and one does not cancel out the other. She believes that her faith is a confluence of spirituality and meaningful entertainment – “We know that Islam promotes travelling, having fun, making money, being entrepreneurial and so much more. Sometimes it is people who restrict themselves rather than Islam. As a Muslim traveller, I can vouch that travelling whilst continuing one’s worship makes us more humble and appreciative of the world. It helps us reflect upon the purpose of our existence with a rejuvenated perspective.”

If anything, this reflection through travel couldn’t be timelier to revive the true teachings of Islam. The spate of violent incidences may require caution on the part of travellers, but Elena believes that shutting out from society may not be the wisest move. “Being separated does not help, rather, integrating, talking about Islam’s beauty, knowing that majority of people are welcoming who see beyond your dress is a comforting reminder of the better part of society that welcomes to be discovered. The world was created by God so that we explore it.” Prepare for all the fun that awaits you, she says, but also “take all the precautions before embarking on the travel, show the people you meet who you really are and how influenced you are by your faith’s core values. If we stopped travelling altogether, then who would have really won?”

While the heart flutters at magnanimous beauty; intrigue envelops with a dive into history; and taste-buds light up to celebrate food devoured for the first time, there always remains scope for a community to salvage its faith from ruins of misfortune. We asked Elena if she saw in travel the potential to reshape and refine popular perceptions about Islam. She responds with the same confidence that she hopes to see within fellow travellers – “Definitely! Travelling lends us self-belief as we become more aware of our surroundings. If Muslims lead by example and stay closer to the true teachings, you will see a wave of non-Muslims standing up for the community more vigorously during dire times. This can be achieved by travelling and exploring, even if it’s as close as a neighbouring city. Some of the best ways to communicate and break ice was taught by our Prophet when he urged us to demonstrate kindness towards strangers and greet them with a smile.”  

Elena’s initiative that translates as MuslimTravelGirl is a fascinating opportunity that helps one branch out into the unknown whilst being rooted to Islamic values. An enabler of fun; adventure; and memorable excursions, it is also a reflection of one’s individuality and the world’s eclecticism. As tensions surge and controversies abound, the likes of Elena would hope that the mysterious cloud over Islam is brushed away…one exciting holiday at a time.

[Editor’s Note – For travel inquiries, Elena can be contacted over email elena@muslimtravelgirl.com and Twitter @MuslimTravelGrl]

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