5 Muslim-friendly holiday destinations to check out

The Grand Friday Mosque is the largest mosque in the Maldives. — Visit Maldives

Based on a report by the Global Muslim Travel Index (GMTI) in 2023, Muslim travellers’ estimated expenditure is projected to reach US$225bil (RM1.069 trillion) globally by 2028, with visitor arrivals reaching 230 million.

This is unsurprising considering the traction that halal tourism or Muslim-friendly travels have been gaining in the past decade or so. Momentarily halted by the pandemic, now the tourism industry is picking up again and travellers are eager to resume exploring the world.

It was reported that Muslim international arrivals reached 110 million in 2022, and are expected to match the pre-pandemic or 2019 figures of 160 million by this year.

As the market grew, offerings have also started to diversify in the Muslim travel sphere. Some travellers may seek only halal food, praying amenities and halal accommodations while they enjoy the standard attractions (think water parks, theme parks and the likes). But there are also those who seek, on top of the basic requirements, specific attractions that will broaden their knowledge and appreciation of their Muslim heritage.

If you’re one such traveller who appreciates the value of visiting mosques, shrines and historical sites with Islamic roots, then you may just want to visit these destinations that will offer you plenty to do and see, topped with an unexpected wealth of Muslim-oriented places of interest.

In Spain, Alcazaba of Badajoz’s history dates back to the 9th century. — DIEGO DELSO/Wikimedia CommonsIn Spain, Alcazaba of Badajoz’s history dates back to the 9th century. — DIEGO DELSO/Wikimedia Commons

Extremadura, Spain

In 2022, Spain was the proud recipient of the Halal In Travel Awards’ “Top Muslim-Friendly Emerging Destination” accolade.

Andalusia, one of Spain’s autonomous communities with the highest Muslim population, is understandably popular among Muslim tourists. It’s a place rich with Islamic heritage, from the Alhambra Palace (cover pic) in Granada and the Medina Azahara in Cordoba, to the Royal Alcazar in Seville.

However, in recent years, there have been ramped up efforts to promote Islamic heritage in other parts of Spain as well. The landlocked Extremadura, which borders Portugal, is one such example.

The eponymous capital city of Badajoz is home to one of the country’s most important historical monuments: Alcazaba of Badajoz. The citadel was founded by Ibn Marwan in 875, but it was only in the 12th century that it took on the appearance that it has now, following construction done by the Almohads.

Located within the citadel is the Archaeological Museum, where you can learn more about the province’s history through archaeology.

Another province in Extremadura is Caceres, which is also a significant historical area. Its capital city of the same name, a World Heritage City, also saw fortifications made by the Almohads that remain standing to this day.

For instance, the 1,174m-long wall that surrounds the historic Old Town of Caceres. Take a stroll along the Adarve or wall-walk to take in the sights of the city without fear of getting lost. As you wander, you will see the three towers that once served as watchtowers: Torre del Horno, Torre de Bujaco and Torre de la Hierba (also spelled Yerba).

North Male Atoll, Maldives

With just 298sq km of land area, the Republic Of Maldives in the Indian Ocean is the smallest country in Asia. Its territory expands to 90,000sq km when factoring in the sea, which forms 99.6% of the island nation.

Turquoise waters, white beaches and overwater bungalows are synonymous with the Maldives. But venture to its vibrant capital Male, on the North Male Atoll, and you will see another interesting side to this tropical paradise.

One of the most densely populated cities in the world, Male features narrow streets lined with high-rise buildings. Amid these, you will find more than 30 mosques. These places of worship were traditionally made from coral stone.

Placed on the Unesco World Heritage Tentative List are six mosques collectively known as the Coral Stone Mosques of Maldives: Ihavandhoo Friday Mosque, Meedhoo Friday Mosque, Male Friday Mosque, Male Eid Mosque, Fenfushi Friday Mosque and Isdhoo Old Mosque.

Meanwhile, the Grand Friday Mosque is a more modern iteration with a stark white marble façade that belies the intricate wood carvings, lacquer work and Arabic scriptures within.

It is the biggest mosque in Maldives that’s able to accommodate up to 5,000 worshippers.

Malaysia, along with other nations such as Brunei and Pakistan, lent a hand in building the mosque that is easily identified – even from afar – by its towering golden dome.

Since Maldives is a 100% Muslim country (it requires citizens to be Muslim), rest assured that you will not encounter in its capital any alcohol offerings (these are only allowed within licensed areas such as resorts and cruise boats).

Visitors here are also advised to dress modestly, though activewear and swimwear are fine.

Other than mosque visits, other activities you can do on North Male Atoll include submarine tours, dolphin cruise, visiting the Male markets (one sells only fruit and vegetables, no meat products, while the other sells fresh seafood) and, of course, island hopping.

The Basilan Provincial Capitol was built to commemorate religious influences that shaped Basilan in the Philippines today. — RON RAMOS/Wikimedia CommonsThe Basilan Provincial Capitol was built to commemorate religious influences that shaped Basilan in the Philippines today. — RON RAMOS/Wikimedia Commons

Zamboanga Peninsula, Philippines

A year after Spain’s win, the Philippines was next to be named Halal In Travel Awards’ Top Muslim-Friendly Emerging Destination.

The city of Zamboanga in the Zamboanga Peninsula, which has a large Muslim population, is among the Philippines’ destinations that is rapidly gaining popularity with Muslim travellers, as it offers a fascinating mix of sights and activities.

In the city’s Taluksangay Barangay, you will find the Taluksangay Mosque. Constructed in 1885 by Hadji Abdullah Maas Nuno, this is said to be the oldest mosque in the region. The religious site can be easily distinguished by its red roof and the minarets surrounding it.

About an hour’s drive from the historical mosque is the Yakan Weaving Village, where you can purchase colourful fabric that have been handwoven using the traditional weaving techniques of the Yakan people, said to be the original indigenous Muslim settlers of Basilan. Bags, seputangan (a square cloth used as head scarf or sash) and other forms of accessories and souvenirs are also sold here.

Basilan, located off the southern coast of Zamboanga Peninsula, has a series of places worth visiting. Its Basilan Provincial Capitol was built to celebrate the religious influences of Islam and Christianity that played a key role in forming the city today.

Previously standing on the site were Fort Isabela II and the Basilan City Hall. The former was destroyed during World War II, and the latter was devoured by fire back in the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a short nature retreat to include in your itinerary, the Great Santa Cruz Island is a slice of holiday paradise featuring pink sand beaches. This unique feature is caused by red corals (organ pipe corals). However, visitors have to book ahead with the City Tourism Office, as only a limited number of visitors are allowed onto the island each day.

Hazratbal Shrine is the only domed mosque (the other mosques are pagoda-like) in Srinagar, India. — ABDULLA NASAR/Wikimedia CommonsHazratbal Shrine is the only domed mosque (the other mosques are pagoda-like) in Srinagar, India. — ABDULLA NASAR/Wikimedia Commons

Kashmir, India

According to the World Population Review, India sits third in the ranking of top 10 countries with the largest number of Muslims, totalling 200 million. That makes up 13.87% of the South Asian nation’s total population, which stands at 1.44 billion as of January 2024.

A mention of India as a Muslim holiday destination might conjure up the image of Taj Mahal in your mind. Understandably so, since the majestic mausoleum is a Unesco World Heritage Site described as “the jewel of Muslim art in India”.

But there is more to the country than that. Take Kashmir for instance. The Muslim majority region is renowned for its mountainous peaks, verdant valleys and tranquil lakes. Don’t let the territorial conflict deter you from visiting this picturesque place, as it has been deemed a safe place for tourists.

Although as always, do practice caution when visiting, same as you would in any other country. Kashmir is also home to the Hazratbal Shrine. Situated on the left bank of Srinagar’s Dal Lake, the white marble mosque is revered because housed within it is the holy relic “Moi-e-Muqaddas”, a strand of Prophet Muhammad’s beard. You may visit Hazratbal Shrine from 9.30am to 5.30pm daily, but do note that photography is not allowed in the main sanctum.

Another destination in India that you can explore is Mysore, or Mysuru, down south in Karnataka. With its second largest population being Muslim, after Hindu, the city has plenty of halal food, Muslim-friendly facilities and several mosques to cater to Muslim travellers.

Nicknamed “City Of Palaces”, Mysore boasts seven stunning former royal residencies that now serve as an iconic landmark (Mysore Palace), hotels (Lalitha Mahal Palace, Rajendra Vilas Palace, Chittaranjan Palace), museums (Jayalakshmi Vilas Mansion which houses the General, Folklore and Archaeology Museums), an art gallery (Jaganmohan Palace) and even a research institute (Cheluvamba Mansion).

The centuries-old Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is a unique attraction in Xinjiang, China. — DAVID STANLEY/Wikimedia CommonsThe centuries-old Afaq Khoja Mausoleum is a unique attraction in Xinjiang, China. — DAVID STANLEY/Wikimedia Commons

Xinjiang, China

Xinjiang is a Muslim-dominated region in China with a large population of Uyghur people and other ethnic minorities. Aside from its sweeping desert plains and rolling mountains, what you can also experience here is its colourful Muslim heritage.

One such destination that illustrates this is the old city of Kashgar – located in its heart is the Yusuf Khass Hajib Mausoleum. Interred within are the remains of the eponymous 11th-century Muslim poet and philosopher from Kyrgyzstan. He died in 1077, but the burial structure was only built – to pay tribute to his life – hundreds of years after his passing.

Over in Haohan Village, you can visit the 384-year-old Afaq Khoja Mausoleum, named after a religious and political leader renowned in the Uyghur communities. The tomb was originally constructed for his father, who was also an important figure, but today it is the resting place for five generations of the Afaqi family, including Afaq Khoja.

In Urumqi, Shaanxi Great Mosque and the Xinjiang International Grand Bazaar will be among the highlights of your trip. Located on the South Heping Road, the mosque has been around since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Take the opportunity to marvel at its architectural beauty, which incorporates traditional Chinese style featuring wooden structures.

Meanwhile, occupying over 10ha (inclusive of an observation tower and a mosque) is the Grand Bazaar that comes alive with some 3,000 handicraft stores.

You will also come across stalls selling local delicacies and other special commodities, such as clothes and knives.

If it’s traditional handicraft by Uyghur artisans that you seek, head to Gaotay Village where crafting skills are handed down as heirlooms through generations. You will even find traditional musical instruments during your visit to the village, which is surrounded by ancient dwellings and from afar, the khaki-coloured houses appear as if they are built on top of one another.

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