My taxi driver was not impressed with my choice of hotel. “Do you like a beer?” he asked me. “I like a few beers when I’m not working but this hotel I take you to it is no good, no beer is available.” It didn’t seem to occur to him that I might have chosen this resort for that very reason.
I was on my way to the Club Familia hotel, 20 minutes’ drive from the port city of Cesme, west of Izmir – one of Turkey‘s main party resorts.
British tourists flock to Turkey’s coast for cheap bars, clubs and beaches. And yet, as a Muslim country, Turkey has been selected as the main destination for a new breed of holiday, one that targets Muslims who want the same things as everyone else on the beach, bar a few concessions, and minus the alcohol.
Under the slogan “Sun, sea and halal!”, a handful of hotels in Turkey are offering what are being dubbed halal holidays – beach holidays that adhere to Islamic values. That means no alcohol and no wearing a bikini in front of a man who is not your husband.
Crescent Tours and Islamic Travels, which both started trading last year, are two operators selling the concept to Britain’s estimated two million Muslims.
Until recently, the Muslim travel market was dominated by agencies specialising in pilgrimages to Mecca. Flights to countries such as Pakistan and India account for the rest of the market; first generation immigrants, for whom holidays mean trips home to see close relatives.
However, British-born Muslims are less shackled by an obligation to visit the relatives “back home”. Their home is the UK and their desire is to travel to other countries. Among my generation of under-40s, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t take at least one holiday a year in a foreign country, just like our non-Muslim counterparts. For many, though, these destinations involve compromise – not using the mixed swimming pool or beach, for example. My sister has her own pragmatic solution: she’ll wait until everyone has left for the day before taking a swim.
Muslim women often go to Dubai, Egypt or Morocco because that is what their husbands and children want – but they cover up on the beach. On these new Islamic beach holidays you don’t have to. So no surprise it is women who are booking holidays with Crescent Tours and Islamic Travels. At first I was sceptical about the idea of an Islamic beach holiday in Turkey. How could you separate men and women on an open beach, in what is a relatively liberal country, I wondered.
The Club Familia has been designed with an Islamic ethos, including a prayer room. I found it comfortable but the rooms were not particularly stylish or luxurious. Its best asset is its location – a quiet bay with no competing hotels to spoil the view. From my balcony, I could look across to Greece.
My room also overlooked the women-only beach, where I could see women in bikinis. And if I could, then so could the male guests. But then, as the hotel manager, Livant, told me later: “We’re not as conservative as the media like to make out. We let the women decide how much they want to show of themselves but we draw the line at men and women sharing a beach or swimming pool.” To be fair, the women’s beach is far enough away that men would get no more than a glimpse of a female body. And I later discovered there was the option for the kind of seclusion and dress that wouldn’t compromise one’s modesty in the slightest.
Livant pointed at a young girl playing in the open-air pool with her father. “It is OK for young girls to swim in it but if she is 10, or looks 10, she would not be allowed in.” Instead, she would be directed, like me, to the women-only pool. Livant knocked on the thick wooden doors and stood out of sight as one of his female staff opened it and led me down, through a basement room with a gym and a relaxation area, to an outdoor pool safe from prying eyes.
On the beach I discovered another neat option devised to offer women complete privacy. Bamboo screens about 20m high created a cloistered beach area, where I was met with the sight of half a dozen Turkish women on sunloungers, chatting among themselves and sunbathing topless. One of them explained that she and her friends had chosen the hotel because it was the only way they could enjoy a beach holiday like anyone else.
Women wear burquinis on mixed beaches. Photograph: Rex FeaturesFor a swim in the warm, blue Aegean where they could be seen by men, they changed into their burqinis. These consist of a tunic, leggings and head scarf, usually made of a light polyester that allows them to swim but keep covered.
The one time men and women are allowed to be together at the hotel is at meal times, in the vast dining room that overlooks the sea. The only drinks available were soft. I’m no fan of buffets but the lamb kofte were the best I’ve ever tasted. Each night there was a barbecue with a different option – fish, chicken, liver – and a dozen desserts, including jelly and cake as well as the traditional baklava. After dinner I drank mint tea in the shaded gardens.
My trip to Turkey ended with two nights in Istanbul, where the tour operator provided me with an English-speaking tour guide. The Turquhouse Boutique Hotel Istanbul was alcohol-free – and the only hotel I’ve stayed where the information board reads (in English): “Dear Guest, direction of Kiblah and praying carpets are in the wardrobe.”
This reflects the philosophy of Mizan Raja, one of the founders of the London-based Islamic Travels, who says he doesn’t just sell holidays; the aim is to create a general sense of Muslim ummah (solidarity). “We are distinctive because all our tour leaders are Muslim community leaders, scholars and academics, and our package also includes a night with local Muslim families,” he says. Islamic Travels takes groups, which tend to be about 80% female and professional, in jobs such as medicine or banking, to Bosnia, Spain and central Asia.
Only the unreliable weather and the fear of being attacked in the tabloid press has put him off offering Islamic beach holidays in Britain. He remembers the reactions of the Sun and the Mail to plans for a Muslim fun day at Alton Towers in 2006.
Crescent Tours has only booked 100 British holidaymakers on to its halal holidays to date but Yasser Mohammed says bookings are increasing, and the company is “gaining momentum as people find out about us on the internet”. Although so far its only destination is Turkey, it plans to expand to Dubai and Egypt, and will tailormake itineraries.
When I got back from Turkey I compared notes with Uzma Akram, a hijab-wearing English teacher from Birmingham who had also experienced the trip. Uzma had nothing but praise for her halal holiday in Antalya. “I had an amazing time,” she said. “It makes me feel more comfortable knowing we don’t have to worry about people getting drunk around us and that what you are doing is not un-Islamic. It is really fun for women, as we have our own private beach and the chance to enjoy ourselves, which we couldn’t otherwise do.”