It’s become a cliché to say that the pandemic has completely changed the way we travel. But, except for the superficial changes of hygiene protocols and medical testing, has it really changed the way we travel?
Before the pandemic, the tourism sector was one of the most important in the world economy. Travel and tourism provided more than 320 million jobs worldwide and accounted for around 10% of global GDP. At the same time, travel and tourism has been the cause of the destruction of natural habitats, dispossession of local communities, exploitation of natural resources and impoverishment of local and emerging economies.
But it’s not all bad.
Tourism is unique in that it has the potential to contribute to most – if not all – of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. When planned and executed responsibly, tourism provides jobs to some of the most vulnerable members of society, particularly women. It preserves cultural heritage and natural habitats; provides decent work and the chance for economic growth; and can foster peace and harmony between diverse groups.
On a personal level, this means that by choosing to take a holiday you can also choose to support a local business, a working mum, protect an ancient culture and help preserve the natural environment. Sounds great, right?
Unfortunately, the reality is that the growth of travel and tourism over the last six decades or so has caused more harm than good. But by becoming more aware of the impact cheap package holidays, waste-pumping cruises, sprawling resorts – to name a few culprits – have on people, animals, and the environment, we’re taking one step closer to rethinking our travel habits and making travel better for everyone.
So, as we get more excited about the prospect of getting back out there, is there a way you and I can improve the way we travel in our ‘New Normal’? Here are 7 slight changes you can embrace to get started:
“Verily actions are by their intentions, and one shall only have that which one intended. So whoever’s migration was to Allah and His Messenger, then their migration was to Allah and His Messenger. And whoever’s migration was for some worldly gain, or for a woman to marry, then their migration is for whatever they migrated for.” (Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim)
Chances are you’ve heard this hadith at least once in your life, usually in the abstract sense. So, when the pandemic forced us to slow down our increasingly busy, frantic, and consumerist lifestyles, many of us started to question just why we need to live like this. Where is the intentionality in all of it; or to quote Simon Sinek, what is your ‘why’? Sometimes it feels like society wants us to study and then work just so we can maintain the capitalist hierarchy, where consumerism is king.
But we can all start to be more conscious consumers, including when we travel, and it all starts with being intentional.
You can make your intentions as small or as grand as you like. Want to explore the beauty of Allah’s creation? Make the intention that doing so will draw you closer to Him. Want to meet new people? Make the intention that He will guide you to meeting people that will bring goodness into your life. Want to learn more about another culture, or connect with your own heritage? Ask Allah to ease the path of seeking knowledge for you.
When a 20-year-old Ibn Battuta set out from his home in Morocco in 1325, his primary intention was to complete Hajj. He would end up travelling for 29 years, experiencing many [mis]adventures along the way and becoming one of the most fondly remembered travellers in history.
Whether you stay local or abroad, travelling is an investment of your valuable time and hard-earned money. Make it count.
Not only with will this help you to explore better; it will also give you a starting point for planning your itinerary.
Read up on the local history – the good, the bad and the ugly – and be critical of where you source your information from. Then once you’re in your chosen destination, familiarise yourself with the locals’ stories by speaking with local guides, shop owners, and taxi drivers. They’re often the ones with their hands on the pulse of the beating heart of society. Equip yourself with a few conversational phrases to help you connect with the locals on their terms – you’ll find it far more rewarding and satisfying than hoping to get by using only English.
When booking your accommodation, read up on who owns and runs it. Where possible, book locally owned and run hotels and guesthouses. Your payment will circulate within the local economy for longer when it lands in a local’s bank, rather than in an offshore company account.
This sounds counter-intuitive – who doesn’t love a bargain? The thing is, package holidays are like fast fashion; cheap, low quality, and often create harmful and exploitative working conditions for locals.
If the price looks too good to be true (meals AND flights included as well?!), it is. When it comes to quality too, you usually get what you pay for.
Instead, invest in yourself by purchasing higher-quality travel services. Whether you choose to DIY, consult a travel designer, or join a group tour, you’ll find that investing in a better way of travelling rewards you with a much better travel experience. Choose accommodation that allows you to explore the local neighbourhood or surrounding scenery, rather than one that’s enclosed or discourages you from leaving. Research and connect with tour guides and tour group providers designed with Muslims in mind. Halal Tourism is the fastest-growing sector in the tourism market, and beyond making access to halal food and prayer facilities easier, it’s making it easier for Muslims to access much better travel experiences.
By choosing to avoid cookie-cutter packages and supporting local businesses instead, you’ll notice how easily the doors to much more transformational experiences open for you during your stay.
…and get access to off-the-beaten-path experiences. Having a friendly local who has studied and trained in their local history and hospitality will open so many doors for you. You’ll have a direct key to experiences and stories that are otherwise difficult to access as a traveller, particularly if you’re only spending a few days/weeks in a new destination. This is especially true if you’re interested in learning about the local history and culture, which is kept alive by locals.
It’s also handy to have a local recommend where the best places to eat are, which is even more important if you’re looking for assurance that the food is halal. They’ll also be able to tell you how to avoid the tourist traps and protect yourself from getting taken advantage of as a traveller.
The benefits of hiring a local guide for the community are many. You’ll be supporting a local family and even a local business, along with helping to preserve the local culture and history by paying for locals to continue sharing their community’s stories. Even if it’s only for a day or half a day, having a local host you will upgrade you from experiencing an average trip to an epic one.
It can feel easier when you’re in an unfamiliar environment to gravitate towards international restaurant chains that serve familiar food. But we all know that the food isn’t authentic to the local community and doesn’t benefit it much either.
Plus, isn’t one of the joys of travelling experiencing food the way the locals do?
The benefits of eating at a local cafe/restaurant/street food cart are many:
• Support a local business
• Experience local culture through the food
• Fewer carbon miles when food is sourced locally
• Support the preservation of heritage when eating traditional cuisine
As a Muslim traveller, one of the challenges we often face is finding halal local food; but this is changing. All over the world and particularly across South-East Asia – Seoul, Tokyo, Hong Kong – where there’s significant investment in attracting Muslim travellers, you can enjoy authentic halal beef bulgogi and ramen more easily than you could have even five years ago. This trend is spreading in the UK and parts of the US too, where growing understanding of allergens and dietary requirements is helping halal to enter the mainstream.
Wherever you travel to, don’t be shy to ask about what goes into the food, and do your research in advance.
6. Cut down on your use of plastics
We already know that plastics are causing a lot of harm both to our environment and to people involved in their production. But did you know that the production of plastics also increases carbon emissions? Greenhouse gas emissions from the plastic lifecycle are threatening targets to keep global temperature rise below 1.5°C (Source: Center for International Environmental Law).
Cutting down on your carbon footprint sounds complicated, but it’s easier when you start small:
This one is not as easy to spot so here are some warning signs to keep an eye out for:
Now this is a tricky one that comes with its own problems. Theoretically, you can have a major polluter – like a fossil fuel energy company – have net-zero emissions because it buys offsets to make up for the carbon it produces.
Likewise, you and I can buy carbon offsets without trying to reduce our carbon footprint at all.
So before buying any carbon offsets, consider how you can reduce your carbon footprint (hint: there are already quite a few tips above!).
The other issue with offsets is that it’s not clear how effective some of these projects are. Planting trees, for example, is useful if they are going to thrive in their environment and contribute to capturing carbon now/soon, as opposed to in ten years’ time.
That said, there are some interesting and promising projects for capturing carbon, including reforesting wild areas, protecting mangroves and more innovative ocean projects where sea kelp and algae are grown to sequester carbon. Projects that have been well thought out and tailored to the local environment are worth investing in, not just when you travel but whenever you want to take action to combat climate change.
“If the Hour (the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it.” (Hadith authenticated by Al-Albani)
This list is by no means exhaustive and there are many more considerations that I haven’t mentioned here, but I hope this gives you an easy starting point. We’ve collectively watched on in horror this summer as record-breaking wildfires have engulfed some of our favourite tourist hotspots, devastating forests and taking the homes and even lives of those caught up in what is clearly an urgent climate alarm bell.
And while travel is finally making a comeback after 18 months of cancelled flights and border closures, you and I can make a few small changes to help travel return better than we left it.
Soumaya T. Hamdi is the Founder and Managing Director of Halal Travel Guide, a travel company focusing on creating better travel experiences for Muslims. Halal Travel Guide works in partnership with local hosts from around the world to design trips with adventure-seeking Muslims in mind and provides free digital travel guides to help Muslims plan better independent trips. You can follow her work on Instagram: @halaltravelguide and @soumaya.tidjanihamdi