Top 6 holiday destinations for fasting travelers

For many of us, the joy of traveling to a foreign country during the summer gives us the perfect opportunity to dive in and sample a different culture, engage with locals, gorge on traditional cuisine and wander through bustling markets under the warm summer sun.

But with Ramadan falling during the end-of-school summer period, many travelers observing the Holy Month often prefer the comfort of their own home, family and friends rather than deal with the difficulties of fasting all day in a non-Muslim country. In most Muslim countries, locals, tourists and non-Muslims are expected to observe the fast while in public as a sign of respect with many eateries closed during the day.

“My concept of a holiday is to take a break from everything related to real life,” said Moroccan sales manager Madiha Zoubiri. “If I was fasting, I wouldn’t be able to do all of the activities I would like to do as a tourist, like sightseeing, visiting museums, taking long walks, or going to the beach.”

However, many tourism authorities, hotels and airlines are offering flexible hours, halal services and cultural events to welcome and cater to Muslim tourists looking to travel this time of year. And why wouldn’t they?

Muslim tourists accounted for an estimated US $126 billion, just over 12 percent of the total expenditure on travel, leisure and business in 2011, according to the Global Muslim Lifestyle Tourism Market 2012 study by Dinar Standard and Crescent-Rating.

“Muslim travelers appreciate that we understand their cultural differences and needs,” said Andrew Oldfield, Tourism Queensland’s marketing manager for Gulf countries. “It leaves a lasting impression and hopefully will be a small part of larger stories and positive experiences that travelers take home with them and will encourage repeat holidays or other family and friends to visit us.”

With unique services, activities and amenities catered toward fasting guests, here are a few countries you should definitely consider if you’re looking to get away this Ramadan:

1. United Kingdom

With one of the largest Muslim communities living in a non-Muslim country, Britain is an ideal place to visit during the Holy Month and help visitors and tourists to feel like home.

“[London] is a true melting pot of the world’s cultures and has a thriving Middle Eastern scene,” said Annique Labuschagne, manager of Gulf markets for VisitBritain. “Here, travelers can meet local Arabs and Muslims, chat in their coffee shops, eat in restaurants serving halal meat, and pick up Arabic fast food and pastries from delis. In these bustling districts, visitors will find halal butchers and Anglo-Arab retailers, including specialist grocers and food stores.”

Many hotels across London work to accommodate the needs of fasting guests including late-night requests and instructing the housekeeping staff not to clean their rooms during the day to avoid interrupting their sleep. They also employ Arabic speaking staff to cater to their non-English speaking visitors as well. The highlight of Ramadan in the region, however, is the annual Eid festival celebrated in Trafalgar Square, London that includes live music, delicious cuisine from across the globe as well as exciting activities for children including face-painting, calligraphy, henna and sports. The UK is sure to be a peaceful yet exhilarating place to visit with the family this Ramadan.

2. Malaysia

Despite the challenging humidity and heat during the summer, Malaysia has consistently topped the list as the top “halal holiday destination” for Muslim tourists. In largely Muslim Malaysia, Muslim-run eateries don’t usually open until mid-afternoon.

One of the highlights of Ramadan in Malaysia are the daily Pasar Ramadans (open-air food markets) that include an unbelievable variety of dishes that range from the classic cendol (coconut milk and sugar) in plastic bags and Kari ayan (curry chicken) to traditional Ramadan staples like dates and baklava to make Arab guests feel right at home.

There are also mosques across the Asian nation making Malaysia a travel favorite for Muslim tourists.

3. Turkey

It should come as no surprise that Turkey’s tourism industry booms during the Ramadan season given the fact that it is closer to the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries and the pleasant weather during the summer. Turks and visitors are advised to refrain from eating, drinking or smoking in public during daylight hours to be polite and respect people who are fasting. While restaurants are open during the day however, most of them do cover their windows and doors to prevent fasting individuals from getting distracted. Many restaurants also offer special Ramadan menus at night and often refrain from serving alcoholic beverages this time of year.

“Many restaurants are ready with their special menu for iftar. They prepare Turkish foods, kebabs, traditional desserts such as baklava, and güllaç [a special dish served during Ramadan] made with milk, nuts and pistachio, which is often enjoyed in cafes,” said Mustafa Özdemir, the cultural and information attaché for the Turkish Consulate General Cultural & Information Office.

After breaking fast at iftar, different parts of the city are lit with strings of colored lights, mosques are illuminated and a celebratory, carnival atmosphere takes over the streets of Turkey with booths set up all over town selling religious books and paraphernalia, traditional snacks, tokens and ornaments for children. Thousands of locals and visitors also gather around with the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, with friends, family and picnic baskets for iftar on the lawn.

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