Turkey’s halal tourism draws crowds
Hotels offer separate pools for men and women
Turkey's US$26 billion (S$35 billion) tourism industry has been battered by security fears and political disputes in recent years but one corner of the market is quietly growing - beach holidays for conservative Muslims.
Dozens of hotels and resorts on Turkey's shores, featuring separate pools and beaches for men and women to meet religious strictures on modesty, are attracting families from Turkey, the Middle East and Muslim communities in the West.
While still accounting for only a small fraction of tourists, the market for halal, or Islamic-compliant, holidays has shrugged off the turmoil and looks set for more growth.
"In the last couple of years, there was a boycott of Turkey as a tourism destination, but we have seen halal-friendly tourism booming throughout this period," said Mr Ufuk Secgin of halalbooking.com.
"Halal-conscious travellers are more resilient. They are not easily scared by headlines," he said at a men-only pool and water slides in Elvin Deluxe Hotel in Turkey.
The number of tourist arrivals in Turkey dropped by a quarter to a 10-year low in 2016, when it was hit by a failed coup, a wave of bomb attacks and a dispute with Moscow that kept millions of Russians away.
It bounced back last year, and the government expects 40 million visitors this year.
Mr Secgin's company brought 12,000 tourists to Turkey in 2015, almost doubling that number in each of the next two years despite turbulence in the country. This year, it expects 70,000 people to visit Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a pious Muslim who has brought religion back into mainstream public life.
Only 60 out of thousands of hotels and resorts there offer halal-friendly breaks, but a report last November said Turkey has jumped four places to the third most popular destination for Islamic holidays, behind the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia.
In fact, the halal hotels were all fully booked in Turkey last year for the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, unlike traditional hotels, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report.
Noting the demand at the country's halal hotels, Turkish hoteliers have started to diversify away from conventional tourism by focusing on this emerging segment, added the report.
In Alanya, a Mediterranean resort in Turkey known for it wide sandy beaches, halal hotels offer a Muslim prayer rug in every room, pools and beaches separately designated for men and women, and mixed areas for families. Food is all halal and alcohol is not served.
At the Wome Deluxe hotel, women-only pools with female security guards and spa staff are shielded from outside view by large panels. Guests can enter only after handing in phones and cameras.
"A couple of years ago, 80 per cent to 90 per cent of our guests were from Turkey. Currently, more than 60 per cent of our guests are foreign Muslims," said general manager Yusuf Gerceker.
Many of them are Muslims from European countries, who said the rise of right-wing and anti-immigrant sentiment has made them want to take holidays elsewhere.
Mr Yavuz Tanriverdi, born and raised in Germany, was in Turkey as he wanted to fit in.
"My wife wears a burqa-covered bikini, (and) for the people here, it is normal. In Germany, it would not be that way," he said.
"Everyone looks at you as if you don't belong." - REUTERS