Bosnia could easily become a major Halal tourist destination, tapping the huge potential of the growing Muslim consumer market, the country's cultural heritage, and strategic geographic location, according to Amir Sakic, the head of the regional Halal Certification institution - the Agency for Halal Quality Certification.
The Halal hospitality industry caters to the needs of Muslim families who abide by Sharia rules. The strictest Halal hotels do not serve alcohol or pork; they have prayer facilities and separate swimming pools and spa facilities for men and women.
The mixture of different religions, customs, and traditions combined with a rich historical background and natural landscape makes Bosnia a hot tourist destination. The country can be especially attractive to Muslim tourists with its cultural heritage of a territory that was once part of the Ottoman Empire.
"We have a significant inflow of foreign tourists from the Islamic countries, though we should not forget that quite a big number of people who live according to Halal rules and observe the Halal practices live in the European Union," Sakic said. He said that more than 15 million Muslims live in the European Union, according to official data, and they are all potential clients of the Halal hospitality industry. "It is important that these services are not limited to Muslims exclusively," he said, drawing a parallel with Halal food fans in Britain, two-thirds of whom are non-Muslims.
"If we have to make a profile of those who want such a service, these are not only people who come on vacation, but also people who come on business and for other reasons," Sakic said that there is no comprehensive official data about foreign tourist arrivals in Bosnia, but it is a fact that a huge number of tourists from Turkey visit the Balkan country throughout the year and the number of tourists coming from Kuwait is on the rise.
Halal tourism is an emerging industry that hopes to ride the wave of success of the Islamic food and banking industries. Progress, however, is slow. The agency Sakic heads was founded six years ago and since then has certified, or is in the process of certifying, all the leading food makers in Bosnia but has awarded only one license to a local restaurant - the Terasa restaurant in Sarajevo - and none to a hotel yet. This situation will change shortly as the country's first Halal hotel will soon be certified, he said, adding that the agency is reviewing several certification applications. "We already have hotels that are 90 percent ready to provide such a service," he said.
In June, the agency signed a partnership agreement with Singapore-based Crescentrating, the world leader in providing Halal-friendly ratings for travel services, on promoting Halal-friendly travel services and facilities in Southeast Europe.
Halal-friendly hotels are ranked on a one-to-seven grade scale according to the scope of their services. A rating of one to three implies practically no adjustment to a regular hotel apart from the "soft change" that includes the readiness to provide guests with specific information about Halal services and facilities in the hotel's surrounding area. Grades four and five mean the hotel's restaurant should serve Halal food. Hotels graded six and seven are known as "dry hotels" as they offer no alcohol.
Halal hotels in Bosnia can start with a very good grade, as one reason for this is the progress made in the certification of food companies, which guarantees the smooth supply of Halal food, Sakic said.
The scope of the agency is not limited to Bosnia only. It is the only Halal certification organization in SEE, issuing Halal certificates to catering facilities and hotels in Albania, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Slovenia, Serbia, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia. It provides Halal certification of the food industry and other industrial branches in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. So far, it has issued certificates for over 1,500 food products to companies from ex-Yugoslavia countries. "Excluding Kosovo, where such a certification has not yet officially started, all other republics of former Yugoslavia already have certified food producers," Sakic said.
Back to tourism, in June, the agency and Crescentrating organized a round table to promote Halal travel services, targeting hoteliers and tourism agencies from Bosnia, Slovenia, and Montenegro. The event has yielded tangible results. "In the first week after the promotion, we received a line of inquiries from tourism agencies from the Gulf countries, asking us to help them establish contact with our agencies so that they could cooperate in the sector." Inspired by the success, Sakic said more such promotions in other regional countries will follow. The role of the local tourist agencies in promoting this service and including it in tourist packages and arrangements is extremely important, he said.
Most applications for Halal hotel certificates come from Bosnia and Slovenia, Sakic said, adding that he expects to see interest rise after the end of the summer season. "Busy work on coordinating and preparing for awarding certificates to winter resort hotels is underway at the moment, and it is pretty certain that before the start of the winter season, a definite number of hotels will be completely ready to provide Halal services to their clients."
In the summer resorts, the preparations for the launch of Halal services should be wrapped up during the autumn and the winter, he said. Bosnia has only several kilometers of coastline but is rich in picturesque mountains that could be promoted as tourism destinations throughout the year. "The mountain resorts hide significant potential and can be interesting beyond the winter season with an adequate organization of recreation and sports activities such as mountain trekking, paragliding, and others," Sakic said.
Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics, and nine sports venues in the city and surrounding mountains were used. In Sakic's view, Bosnia should promote its attractions as a traditional tourist destination to lure Halal tourists - its medieval heritage and the numerous monuments from the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian periods.
Crescentrating said that Malaysia, Turkey, and Egypt were the three highest-ranked places in its 2011 list of top 10 destinations for Muslim travelers worldwide. The share of Muslim travelers in the 2010 global tourism spending rose to nine percent, or $90 billion, from six percent in 2006, data from the United Nations World Tourism Organization and Crescentrating showed. Crescentrating sees the share of Muslim travelers in global tourism spending moving up to between 12.5 percent and 15 percent in 2020, which translates to between $188 billion and $225 billion, based on the rising share of Muslims in the world's population.