Halal tourism tipped to rise as World Travel Market opens

Sunday, November 11, 2007

LONDON: The world’s largest travel fair opened with a strong focus on green issues Monday, highlighting the ever-increasing pressure on the tourism industry to promote environmentally friendly ways of seeing the world.

Other trends identified at the opening of the World Travel Market 2007 included the rise of Halal tourism in the Middle East, the role of mobile phones in revolutionizing the Asian travel industry and the growth of “voluntourism.”

Algeria and Libya were tipped as new travel hotspots, while Australia retained its crown as the world’s top country brand for the second year running.

Organizers of the four-day gathering in London’s Docklands business district, being attended by tourism officials, government delegations, tour operators and airlines from more than 200 countries, put the focus squarely on the promotion of sustainable tourism.

The conference will host a U.N. World Tourism Organization summit on climate change on Tuesday ahead of the launch of the UNWTO’s World Responsible Tourism Day on Wednesday.

Organizers will also hand out responsible tourism awards, and a panel discussion on whether wildlife tourism in India can save the tiger is just one of many green-themed talks.

Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., said that the airline industry had made significant progress via technological progress and voluntary change to promote greener flying but has “done a bad job talking about it.”

Ridgway said the industry needed to balance the economic benefits of tourism with the cost to the environment.

“Where would the Caribbean economies be without the jet engine? They would be nowhere,” he said. “But that is not to say that we don’t have a responsibility.”

Mike Forster, director for strategy and development at British airports operator BAA, reiterated his support for an EU plan for airlines to join an emissions trading system.

Among other trends for the industry, a Euromonitor International report highlighted the potential for a boom in Halal tourism in the Middle East, where it forecasts 66 percent growth in inbound tourists by 2011 to 55 million people.

Clement Wong, travel and tourism research manager at Euromonitor International, said that a large proportion of those visitors will be intra-regional travelers, encouraged in part by the difficulty of obtaining visas for Western Europe and the United States.

Wong said that there was a market for a Halal startup airline, such as the budget airline set up by the Vatican earlier this year to transport pilgrims to holy sites. A Halal airline could provide food prepared according to Muslim religious requirements, include prayers and provide separate sections for male and female travelers, he said.

“There is a dearth in the supply of Halal tourism products,” he said, citing Dubai’s Ice Bar — which is modeled on Western concepts but does not serve alcohol — as an example to be copied.

The report also identified the use of mobile phones in Asia in the tourism industry as a potentially explosive trend that could eventually be exported to the United States and Europe.

Mobile phones have penetrated Asia-Pacific markets more than the Internet, opening up access to lower-income consumers because of low-cost monthly packages.

A number of regional travel operators have already caught on to the use of text messaging, with Philippine Airlines and Cebu Air providing SMS ticketing while Singapore Airlines sends SMS confirmation services to its local customers.

Wong added that North Africa is to become one of the world’s tourism hot spots, with Libya and Algeria the latest countries predicted to have the potential to share in the boom that neighboring countries such as Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia are enjoying.

Australia was at the top of a separate Country Brand Index by FutureBrand, followed by the United States, Britain, France and Italy. The FutureBrand survey tipped Croatia, China and the United Arab Emirates as the three “top rising stars,” or those that will become major tourist destinations in the next five years.

The FutureBrand reports also highlighted another emerging trend, so-called “voluntourism,” where tourists plan their trips around humanitarian purposes.