The concept of Shariah-compliant hotels, which was announced a couple of years ago, has yet to catch on, especially in the four- and five-star categories, said a senior hotel executive.
Dr Barbara Urasch, Vice-President, Venatol, a hotel management firm that is planning Shariah-compliant hotels in Europe, said: "Many of the hotel just do not serve alcohol, they are not Shariah-compliant. There is a demand for Shariah-compliant four- and five-star hotels not just in the region but worldwide. Currently, there are no such hotels in this category."
The popular misconception in the absence of standardisation or certification is that a hotel that does not serve alcoholic beverages and serves halal food is a Shariah-compliant hotel.
John Podaris, Associate Director, TRI Hospitality Consulting, told Emirates Business: "It is more than just not serving beverages and non-halal food that makes a hotel Shariah, though of course these are two very important aspects of being Shariah-compliant. If the hotel has to be Shariah-complaint then the concept should be implemented right through. The hotel must have separate entrances for women, as well as women only function rooms. The rooms must be designed for prayers and ablution"
Hotel industry sources said that for hotel to be Shariah-complaint, it should not serve alcohol, serve halal food, reflect Shariah values, follow the principle of zakat and if possible separate function rooms for men and women, separate health club and fitness facilities for men and women.
Talking about demand, Dr Urasch said: "According to the World Tourism Organisation, the Gulf travellers spend more than Dh44 billion on annual leisure travel. Of this, travellers from UAE spend Dh18bn visiting other countries every year. There is need for Shariah-compliant hotels as Muslim travellers makes up 10 per cent of the world tourism market and the number is increasing.
Podaris said: "Unlike other situation where the concept has to chase funds, Shariah-compliant funds were already available and the concept evolved from there."
The two drivers for the concept are that the money is legal and the property owners are devout Muslims.
A senior industry executive said hotels following the principles of Shariah have based the idea on religious point of view and have evolved as a lifestyle option, which is family oriented and healthy living.
Podaris said: "The concept is interesting but the market for it has to be identified. Hotels should be more creative and look beyond the Muslim market to use the healthy lifestyle platform."
He said: "First there are the traditional Muslim travellers, who, when travelling with family, are more comfortable staying in a hotel that does not have a bar and that serves halal food. The other category, which would opt for a hotel following the principles of Shariah, is business travellers from traditional cultures'
These business travellers especially from countries like Indonesia and Thailand prefer a hotel that does not have a bar and serves halal food.
Tamani Hotel Marina, the flagship hotel of Tamani Hotels and Resorts, which is a Shariah-compliant hotel has been averaging over 70 per cent occupancy for the first two months of 2009. The hotel has reported 100 per cent occupancy for 11 days during this period, according to Roddy Gordon, Vice-President Sales and Marketing, Tamani Hotels and Resorts.
Gordon said that for a week the hotel reported occupancies of 95 per cent.
The guests in the hotel during this period were a mix of business visitors and leisure travel from GCC markets and Eastern Europe.
That the concept is yet to catch on is evident from the fact that there are also very few hotels in the four- and five-star category following the principles of Shariah.
Hotel industry sources said: "In most cases it does not make commercial sense, especially if it is an airport or CBD (central business district) hotel."
He said that liquor in hotels is expensive and hotels make a huge profit from their food and beverage business. "The profit from food and beverage is anything between 30 and 33 per cent.
However, not every one agrees that the beverage is such a big issue. Guy Wilkinson, General Manager, Viability Management Consultants, said that 75 per cent of all hotels in Gulf, especially in the three-star category do not serve alcohol and have shown healthy occupancies.
Amal Harb, Associate Vice-President Marketing and Communications, Rotana Hotel Management, said that the company's newly launched alcohol-free brand Rayhaan Hotels and Resorts by Rotana is a Shariah compliant. This brand was launched in response to the demands.
She said: "In this ever-changing world, some of our guests seek to reflect their values in their choice of accommodation. In respecting the needs of our guests we have introduced an alcohol-free option within Rotana's hotel and resort portfolio. Our new product brand, Rayhaan, respects the beliefs and culture of our guests while fostering the image of an Arabia in today's world."
Many of the international chains are not very gung-ho about the concept, as it would be at variance with the other brands in their portfolio, a hospitality consultant said. "If we advertise this hotel as a healthy lifestyle would it mean that the other brands are unhealthy," a hospitality industry source said.
In such a case, international hotel management companies would have to create a new brand, which they are not yet willing to do as the concept is still in its nascent stage. A consultant said: "At the end of the day, when a guest walks into a Hilton or a Sheraton, he knows that he can get a drink, which is often the deciding factor."