DUBAI - Targeting Muslim millennials who want the freedom to curate their own journeys, new platform Rihaala.com is taking a different approach to online halal travel booking.
Rather than rely on generic images of destinations or pay a lot for exclusive shots, the newly launched UK-based online travel agency (OTA) curates visual content from Instagram, Facebook and Twitter in real-time.
“We have about half a million assets to play with, including Instagram videos and selfies by Muslim influencers and brand ambassadors. It’s the beauty of the way social media is integrated,” Nabeel Shariff, founder of Rihaala.com told Salaam Gateway.
Choosing Muslim influencers also supports the Islamic economy because people don’t just buy travel products, but also fashion, cosmetics, and dinners.
“We are not isolated as a travel company in the halal economy. We are part of a wider economy. Fashion has an influence on travel, so does food and lifestyle,” said Shariff.
“The quicker we embrace that, the quicker we’ll be able to provide a better set of content and integrate ourselves within the buying process of the Muslim consumer’s mind.”
Currently, travellers will be able to book online flights and hotels. Transfers and excursions will be added soon, said Shariff.
Hotels are filtered based on six categories: Alcohol-free, Private Pools, 100 percent Halal Dining, Designed for Females, Eco-friendly, and Make that Prayer.
Rihaala.com will offer more than 1,500 properties in over 40 destinations, from Canada and Switzerland to the Philippines and Tanzania.
“By the end of May, we’ll have 12 European destinations. A lot of that is down to Europe being a lot more accessible when it comes to providing halal-friendly options.
“Also, Africa is an underrated continent and we’re planning a lot there. Countries like Kenya, South Africa and Tanzania are becoming accessible.”
POINT OF INFLUENCE
Rihaala aims to influence people just as they start to consider a trip.
“The consumer buying process doesn’t start from when they contact us,” said Shariff.
“It starts from the moment they sit in bed and think ‘I want to go on holiday’, or when they’re talking among their friends and say, ‘I want to try Japan as well’. It starts from that moment and all the research they do from there,” he added.
That early-stage decision process is the turning point, said the chartered marketer who has been involved in the travel industry for over 15 years.
“It’s what makes people say ‘yes, I want to go’, or ‘no I’m going to leave it, it’s not for me today’.
“As a provider and fulfiller of travel, we can’t wait for people to come to us, we’ve got to start talking to them way before.”
With that in mind, developing halal-friendly content was a crucial aspect for Rihaala.com. This involved working with Muslim travel writers around the world, and influencers who have a passion for travel.
“Anybody can book a ticket and go somewhere. But we want those who really understand the destination, meet the locals, try local food, excursions and activities that people don’t necessarily know about – that’s inspirational.”
The concept is all about encouraging Muslims to be inspired by their peers to travel, because at the end of the day, a travel company can only inspire to a certain level.
“What really gets people going is what their friends and family and favorite influencers are doing,” said Shariff.
Shariff already runs two sister brands: Serendipity Tailormade, a bespoke halal-travel company founded in 2010, and Luxury Halal Travel, a concierge-style service for high-end clients. However, both brands are offline.
“Rihaala is the first online booking platform that we’ve ventured into, and we’ve done that because the market has caught up,” said Shariff.
“Three or four years ago, the demand for halal travel within the markets we work in, which are the UK, Canada and the U.S., was predominantly from second-, third- and fourth-generation Muslims who were looking to travel. There is now a larger market to tap into.”
While online travel agents (OTAs) have cemented their place in the industry, the high-street travel agent is far from dead and many brands are succeeding because people still want the human touch, said Shariff.
“There will be a lot of cross-selling between Serendipity and Rihaala.com. If somebody doesn’t want to book online, they can come to Serendipity through the Rihaala website, and vice versa. The channel lines are open.”
By the end of the year, Rihaala will have a storefront dedicated to the U.S. and Canadian markets as well as an Arabic version with content curated for the Arab world.
A travel agent portal will also be available to select partners, enabling them to create halal-friendly travel packages for their clients.
Rihaala.com competes with dedicated Muslim-friendly OTAs HalalBooking, Pure Trip (both are also UK-based), Singapore’s HalalTrip, and to a certain extent, UAE- and Malaysia-based HolidayMe. Another Singapore-based company, Have Halal, Will Travel that also targets the Muslim millennial market, told My Salaam in February that it is working on a platform for travelers to book tours and other activities.
Serendipity Tailormade is currently raising $526,662 for Rihaala.com on equity crowdfunder Eureeca.
(Reporting by Heba Hashem; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim [email protected])
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