Islamic hotels spread beyond Gulf

| 06/05/2008 | Reply

Islamic hotels spread beyond Gulf

Shariah-compliant hotels are mushrooming throughout
the Middle East and elsewhere, boosted by an increase in the number of
Arab tourists. The developers of these hotels believe these
establishments will appeal to Muslims and non-Muslims alike as they
provide a culturally unique and relaxing atmosphere for travellers.

Demand for Shariah-compliant accommodation is on the
rise and currently represents 10% of the world tourism market,
according to Abdulla Almulla, chairman of Dubai-based Almulla
Hospitality. Speaking at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference,
Almulla said his firm plans to have an international chain of 150
Shariah-compliant hotels by 2015, with up to 90 of them located in the
Middle East and North Africa.

High-growth market

The market for Shariah-compliant hotels is
expanding in line with the growth in the number of Arab tourists.
Travellers from the
GCC spend over $12bn annually on leisure travel, according to the World Tourism Organisation.
UAE travellers spend an average of $1,700 per vacation, which is $500 higher than the European average.

Almulla aims to establish a brand identity that Muslim travellers will
recognise and trust. Some hotels categorise themselves as Islamic but
are not Shariah-compliant, he noted, citing one example in which a
‘dry’ hotel served non-alcoholic drinks at a ‘juice bar’. ‘We would not
call it a ‘bar’ because that word should not be used at a
Shariah-compliant hotel,’ he said.

International guidelines

No international guidelines have been
developed that establish uniform standards for Shariah-compliant
hotels. At a minimum, these hotels ban alcohol, gambling, and lewd
movies, and serve only Halal food. But subtle differences may exist.

For its part, Almulla’s hotel chain will follow guidelines
established by its board of Islamic experts. “International standards
for Islamic hotels will evolve in the next 10 years,’ he predicted.

Shariah-compliant hotels will eventually gain a foothold with
non-Muslim tourists, he believes, but it will take time to convince
them that they will be getting the same level of service and that the
quality of the product will not suffer. He says his hotels will appeal
to non-Muslims because of their socially-responsible culture and their
quiet, family-friendly atmosphere.

Shaza seeks slice of market

Another hotel chain that aims to
grab a lion’s share of the Arab travel market is the recently launched
Shaza Hotels, which was formed via a partnership between Kempinski,
Europe’s oldest luxury hotel brand, and international financial firm
Guidance Financial Group, said Christopher Hartley, Shaza’s chief
executive.

Hartley believes there is an undersupply of hotels in the regional
hotel market that cater to Arab tourists. ‘Most travellers in the
Middle East are intraregional travellers,’ he noted. ‘We want to create
a product that reflects the needs, values, and interests of these
travellers.’

The company aims to attract non-Muslim visitors by offering them
something unique. ‘There is a saturation of brands in the hotel
market,’ Hartley said. ‘We want to create a product that differentiates
itself.’

Being Shariah-compliant is just one aspect of what Shaza Hotels
will offer. ‘Shariah-compliant hotels are a new concept, but Arab
hospitality is thousands of years old,’ Hartley noted. ‘The hospitality
industry is about welcoming people, and Arabs do that very well.’

In addition to planning a number of hotels for the Gulf, Shaza is
opening a hotel in Geneva, one of the most popular destinations in
Europe for travellers from the Middle East. ‘We believe the market is
right for this kind of hotel. Our hotel will immerse guests in Arabian
culture and we will have food concepts that will attract the average
person in Geneva,’ he said.

Making profits without alcohol

Commenting on whether a
Shariah-compliant hotel can be profitable without serving alcohol,
Hartley said most of a hotel’s profit comes from its rooms division.
‘Food and beverage service often doesn’t make much money because the
margins are low and it is labour intensive,’ he noted.

The key is to give guests an experience that they cannot have
elsewhere. ‘At the moment, the high-priced Japanese restaurant Zuma is
the hottest product in London because it offers a unique cultural
experience,’ Hartley said. ‘There is no reason why our hotels can’t be
just as successful.’

Category: Middle East & Africa, Travel & Hospitality

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