Islamic Tourism: Iranian Muslims as Hosts and Guests

The aforementioned conditions and obligations about religious observances both in everyday affairs and when overseas can pose dilemmas for Muslim visitors and destination hosts. Islam is all pervasive in societies where religion and culture are interwoven and Sharia law may govern much of what is considered acceptable (halal) regarding leisure. Laws prohibit public displays of affection, shaking hands or any physical contact between members of the opposite sex, unmarried couples sharing rooms, gambling, breaking fast in daylight during Ramadan, consumption of pork and other haram (forbidden) foods, selling or drinking liquor and dressing inappropriately.

Both sexes must cover their torso and upper legs at all times and only women’s faces may be exposed (Deng et al., 1994). Frequenting discotheques and bars and miscellaneous other entertainments are deemed unlawful. Men and women may be segregated at events and sites such as museums and shopping malls. The amount of recreation time for nationals is also circumscribed by religious duties (Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Commission for Tourism, 2002).

Local adherence to and enforcement of these requirements does, however, vary across Islamic countries. Religious principles and practices are strictly enacted in certain states while others are more relaxed. A greater degree of liberalism is likely to make travel easier for non-Muslims, although it must be remembered that Muslims have obligations as hosts and a tradition of offering hospitality to strangers, which many Western travelers have appreciated. Nevertheless, tourists are advised to be respectful of local norms and abide by rules such as the wearing of a head covering by women and modest dress by men in public.

What are perceived to be excessive curbs on freedoms of dress, consumption of food and beverages, personal and social relations and entertainment are likely to depress international arrivals. An additional constraint is that Islam is often associated with ultra-conservatism, terrorism, oppression and anti-Western sentiment by outsiders (Armstrong, 2002), and the marketing of Islamic destinations can be a daunting task (Henderson, 2008). The political tensions between the West and some Muslim countries have also reinforced mutual suspicions, which may be aggravated by media reporting. Practical hurdles regarding accessibility, mobility and visa rules have also to be negotiated.

Muslim as tourists are required to adhere to the customary restrictions where possible and ‘abstain from profligate consumption and indulgence’ (Hashim et al., 2007, p. 1085). They may, however, delay Ramadan fasting and curtail regular prayers when they are on the move (Timothy and Iverson, 2006). Individuals may also elect to ignore religious teachings and Bahrain’s ‘relatively open atmosphere and liberal attitude towards alcohol and entertainment’ (EIU, 2008a: p. 30) is popular with Saudi Arabians who have easy access by the causeway connecting the two states.

Some tourism industry practitioners in non-Muslim locations have taken steps to satisfy the special needs of Muslim visitors, illustrated by the provision of halal meals and hotel signage pointing to Mecca for prayer as well as information about mosques. Efforts have been censured for their inadequacy (Syed, 2001) and the topic merits further research. Given the potential problems, Muslims may prefer to remain within a familiar culture when travelling and this has been labeled Islamic tourism.

Islamic tourism can be defined as tourism mainly by Muslims, although it can extend to unbelievers motivated to travel by Islam, which takes place in the Muslim world (Al- Hamarneh, 2008; OIC, 2008b; Henderson, 2009). Purposes are: ‘first, the revival of Islamic cultures and the spread of Islamic values; second, economic benefit for Islamic societies; and third the strengthening of Islamic self-confidence, identity and beliefs in the face of negative stereotyping in comparison to other cultures and lifestyles’ (Al-Hamarneh, 2008, p. 2).

Islamic tourism is agreed to be a powerful commercial force (Euromonitor, 2008), especially within the Middle East, with excellent prospects (Mintel, 2005). Nevertheless, OIC territory in total accounts for only about 12% of global tourist arrivals who are very unevenly distributed (OIC Journal, 2008). Turkey, Malaysia and Egypt record the highest volumes due in part to their popularity with non-Muslim holidaymakers (UNWTO, 2008). Statistics hint at unrealized potential among Muslim and non-Muslim markets and significant obstacles to destination development, although the often substantial scale of domestic tourism should not be forgotten (Bogari et al., 2003). Circumstances can be explained by less advanced stage of economic development (UNDP, 2008).