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Islamic Lifestyle

Muslim heritage tourism vastly untapped despite development projects underway

Islamic heritage tourism is a huge opportunity for Muslim-majority countries. While several nations have announced plans to rekindle their legacies, is enough being done to revive historical Islamic landmarks? 

The global heritage tourism market is booming, driven by several factors, such as curious travellers, history enthusiasts, specialized tour operators and the increasing popularity of historical TV shows and movies.

In 2023, the global heritage tourism market was worth about $587.1 billion, and could reach $813.5 billion by 2032, according to India-based market research firm IMARC Group.

Muslim heritage tourism could capture a significant slice of this market, considering Muslims are major contributors to the global outbound tourism industry. In 2022, Muslim consumer spend on travel was estimated at $133 billion, an increase of 17% on the previous year, according to the State of the Global Islamic Economy Report 2023/24.

By 2027, this figure is forecast to reach $174 billion.

Massive projects 

Several Muslim-majority countries are developing Islamic heritage sites to attract visitors and capitalize on its potential. 

Saudi Arabia, leading the way in these efforts, is developing projects aimed at renovating historic mosques and preserving ancient Islamic sites.

The kingdom recently announced the development of the Islamic Civilization Village as a transformative addition to the city of Madinah. Spanning 257,000 sqm, the destination will feature eight zones modelled after influential Islamic regions: the Arabian Peninsula, Islamic South Asia, Africa, Al Andalus, Maghreb, Mashriq, ASEAN, and the Silk Road.

In total, Saudi Arabia plans to develop more than 100 historical sites in Makkah and Madinah, and is looking to launch an online platform for booking tickets to visit sites in Makkah, including locations such as the Cave of Hira, where Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) had received divine revelation. Though not a mandatory part of any pilgrimage, many Muslims visit the site out of reverence. 

Moreso, the kingdom welcomed more than 13.5 million Muslims for Umrah last year, a staggering year-on-year increase of 61.8%. 

Egypt is also gearing up for the Great Transfiguration, a massive religious tourism development in the governorate of South Sinai. Estimated to cost $255 million and expected to attract more than one million tourists annually, it will see the establishment of 14 projects to create a spiritual destination above the mountains surrounding the Holy Valley.

The area holds immense importance for the world’s three major monotheistic religions - Islam, Christianity and Judaism - and includes Mount Moses and Saint Catherine’s Monastery, with the latter having witnessed historical transformations like the addition of a mosque during the Fatimid Caliphate.

Work has already begun on both expanding the St. Catherine Airport in South Sinai to transform it into an international hub and on developing hotels that will collectively offer more than 1,000 guest rooms. As of 2022, 30% of the project work had been completed.

Reviving Islamic heritage in Central Asia

Asia currently leads the way in terms of Muslim arrivals, according to the Mastercard-CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index 2024. 

Home to a number of well-preserved mosques and shrines, Uzbekistan is establishing itself as a hub of Islamic heritage. The Central Asian nation also hosts the world's oldest known Quran.

Several of its cities, including Tashkent, Bukhara, and Samarkand, have been recognized as capitals of Islamic culture by the Islamic World Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ICESCO). 

“Uzbekistan is becoming a popular travel destination because of Ziarah, or pilgrimage, tourism. The cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Khiva are full of religious sites including many madrasahs [Islamic schools] and mosques,” Bunyod Egamberganov, owner of Euroasia Travels, an Uzbekistan-based travel agency, tells Salaam Gateway.

“The government and private sector are investing in infrastructure improvements, ensuring the facilities meet halal standards, and we are promoting religious and historical cities through social media.”

Euroasia Travels organizes Islamic heritage tours each month. Most of the demand arises from Muslim visitors based out of Malaysia, Indonesia, Turkey, Saudia Arabia, and Egypt, though it has also seen an increasing number of European tourists.

“These types of excursions are popular in Uzbekistan as there are magnificent mausoleums of Islamic scholars such as Imam al-Bukhari, Hakim at-Termizi, and Bahauddin Naqshbandi. Additionally, there is the tomb of Qusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of Prophet Muhammad PBUH,” says Egamberganov.

According to Jamshid Gaziev, head of domestic, pilgrimage, and sustainable tourism development department at the Tourism Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan, the country has been actively promoting its Muslim heritage tourism potential.

In 2023, it held the 'Uzbekistan - Best Destination for Muslim Hospitality' forum, bringing together local tourist organizations with tour operators from OIC (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation) member states. 

“In 2023, we welcomed 1.415 million pilgrims, including 428,000 from Tajikistan, 335,000 from Kyrgyzstan, 283,000 from Kazakhstan, 45,600 from Turkey, 3,500 from Azerbaijan and Malaysia, and 3,290 from Indonesia,” Gaziev tells Salaam Gateway.

With citizens of 76 countries eligible for Uzbekistan’s tourist e-visa, including Muslim-majority nations such as Bangladesh, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, the country has facilitiated inbound travel considerably. 

Key religious spots need exposure

Iran, too, could grow into a major Islamic heritage destination.

Home to more than 8,000 sacred sites and pilgrimage locations, the country welcomed about eight million visitors annually prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The figure dropped to six million in 2023.

“Since Iran has religious attractions for Muslims, including the Imam Reza Shrine, Fatima Masuma Shrine, and Shah Cheragh [an ancient mosque complex], plus relatively good infrastructure, it has the potential to offer Islamic heritage tours,” Tahereh Shirdel, vice president and marketing manager at To Iran Tour tells Salaam Gateway.

“However, with limited promotional and marketing activities, there are lots of things that need to be done to enable it to fully leverage religious tourism,” she says.

To Iran Tour offers religious tours upon request, mostly to cities of Mashhad and Qom. “Our requests for these tours mainly come from Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Gulf countries. Most are combined with natural or cultural tours of Iran,” says Shirdel.

In neighbouring Iraq, which has numerous historical mosques and ancient Islamic cities, religious tourism could draw in millions of visitors and generate billions of dollars annually, according to research by professors at the University of Kufa. 

“Iraq is one of the most attractive religious destinations due to the presence of the different sects of Islam. As such, it attracts Muslim visitors from all over the world,” Ahmed Maher, a tour guide at Baghdad-based Aknaf Tours tells Salaam Gateway.

“We have the mosque of Imam Abu Hanifa, founder of the Sunni Hanafi school of fiqh, and the mausoleum of Abdul Qadir Gilani, founder of the Qadiriyya, one of the oldest Sufi orders. Furthermore, of the 12 imams revered by Shiite Muslims, seven of them are buried among the grand shrines in Iraq.”

Despite its wealth of Islamic heritage, the country’s tourism sector is not sufficiently developed, with no annual studies or strategic plans to develop religious tourism.

Consequently, tourism contribution to Iraq’s economy is not commensurate with what it possesses in terms of religious tourism components, the University of Kufa research stated. The country’s tourism revenues are projected to increase to $12 billion from $10.9 billion generated in 2020, should religious tourism be adequately developed.   

For these reasons, Aknaf Tours has focused on offering historical, cultural, and nature-based tours.

“People who visit simply come because of their strong faith and not in response to marketing efforts. Iraq is still an oil-based economy and does not depend on tourism. That said, it is an emerging travel destination thanks to growing stability and the new visa on arrival which was announced in 2022 and applies to 35 nationalities,” says Maher.


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Religious tourism