Author: Crescent Tours
In 70 per cent of cases, it is women who decide holiday destinations and many Muslim women relish the rare opportunity for uninhibited swimming and sun bathing. In a welcome break from a stubbornly cold month of May in Britain, I tried out halal-style relaxation at the Bera Hotel Alanya, near Antalya, on Turkey’s south coast
Muslims all over Europe are waking up to the fact that they can enjoy sun and sea with a clear conscience. Advertising plays its part in influencing everyone’s consumer choices, but the last 30 years have also seen major changes for European Muslims in particular: not only greater spending power, but also a different sense of belonging. There may no longer be a “back home” to go to and many want to take time off or a holiday in ways which correspond with aspiration but do not compromise religious values.
The idea of “halal tourism” only really got going in the mid-90s, reflects Enver Cebi from ‘Crescent Tours’, the leading online agency in the UK for this kind of holiday. “Turkey is 10 years ahead when it comes to the development of the concept,” he says. “Some people think it’s just about halal food and the absence of alcohol, but it’s much more than that.”
Turkey offers a variety of halal holidays directed towards cultural interest, health or relaxation according to taste. In 70 per cent of cases, it is women who decide holiday destinations and many Muslim women relish the rare opportunity for uninhibited swimming and sunbathing. In a welcome break from a stubbornly cold month of May in Britain, I tried out halal-style relaxation at the Bera Hotel Alanya, near Antalya, on Turkey’s south coast.
The hotel has the feeling of a cruise-liner, a great 1200-capacity hulk designed to look like a ship heading out to sea with all facilities on board. “It’s perfect for me,” remarks Fatima, a 29-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent, staying with her husband, young son and aged mother. I meet her by the open-air, ladies-only pool on the top floor as we both wait for an afternoon snack of freshly prepared gözleme, a kind of pizza. “Here I can relax in my bikini and soak up the vitamin D at the same time, while mister gets on and does his own thing. He’s made friends amongst other French speakers and we are happy to meet up at mealtimes.” She says they have tried holidaying in Spain, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt but there was never the same provision for women’s swimming. “I haven’t found a place like this anywhere else in the world. This is where I can feel freedom. It’s wonderful being apart from the men.”
At the Bera, most ladies opt for the swimming pools on the roof terrace rather than the mixed beach, where what is always euphemistically referred to as modest dress is de rigueur. Access to the top is strictly monitored: a women-only lift zooms you up and a stern uniformed female guard checks no-one is carrying camera-phones and that there are no boys aged over 6. The atmosphere is laid-back. Ladies are provided with fresh towels and stroll about without self-consciousness, dressed in every permutation of swimwear, from the all-over burqini with sou’wester-type headgear, through to mid-calf cover, right down to the bikini. The odd teenager will of course stretch boundaries in order to achieve the all-over shoulder tan, but there is no sense of vulgarity or indecency, or indeed of embarrassment.
The Bera is the kind of resort that seems best suited to families with younger children. The children’s pools in both the men’s and the women’s areas have play areas as well as waterslides, many of the children enjoy the minidisco in the evenings and there is a charming little zoo with ducklings, peachicks and the like by the toddlers’ playground overlooking the sea. Naz, a British-Pakistani from Croydon, here on a 40th birthday treat with her sister and 8-year-old daughter, says she would be happy bringing her 18-year-old daughter here, too. “Just as long as there’s some other kids their own age, they always find new friends. And I can rest assured that it’s a safe and appropriate environment for them.”
The hotel also offers special deals for honeymooning couples. One such are Ayşe and Hasan, both in their late 20s, who are of Turkish origin from Paris. Ayşe has been soaking up the sun and Hasan trying out every type of outdoor activity from volleyball to jet-skiing. They are generally keen on inclusive packages and enjoyed their day out to Alanya, but they say this resort does not offer enough evening entertainment for young people.
Uzma from Wanstead was thorough in her research: She knew pretty much exactly what she was getting as she looked up videos of people’s experiences of the hotel on YouTube and did not just rely on the official website. She and her husband have been to Dubai before but they both agree they prefer holidaying in Turkey. “Here in Turkey men don’t stare at women. I can feel comfortable walking around with my wife — it’s like England,” says husband Ahmed. It’s the second year they have come, but they say prices have doubled and the standard of cooking has declined since last year.
Food is an issue of interest to all. The large restaurant has a noisy canteen atmosphere, but there is also a pleasant outdoor terrace where you can escape the clash of cutlery. The fare offers a vast array of choice. The buffet layout involves a certain amount of zigzagging if you’re avoiding chips, which the hotel has rather mischievously positioned in pride of place. The delicious salad and herb combinations are great; then there are many pickles, olives and flavoured feta cheeses to choose from and the charcoal-grilled chicken and fish are always reliable. Water, cola and ayran are on tap. The over-bright cakes are not nearly as good as the fresh fruit or the traditional baklava, and meals are topped off by a leisurely tea in the lobby with baskets of hot salty popcorn in the evening.
A Quran, a prayer rug and a string of prayer beads are to be found in every room, as well as a sticker indicating the direction of prayer. Digital displays by the lifts on every lobby indicate accurate prayer times. However, should you wish to use the hotel mosque, it comes as a surprise to find that it is squeezed into the mezzanine between the lobby and the first floor so that there is not enough headroom for anyone over five and a half foot tall, though the space is wide and luminous with adequate room for both sexes. Cebi from ‘Crescent Tours’ is keen to point out that a halal holiday is not meant to be a religious holiday but a leisure holiday in a halal-compliant way of taking time off.
Most of the guests were Turkish when I visited, but there were also a fair number of non-Turkish Arabic-speaking visitors from France, Belgium and Holland. There were only a few Brits, but apparently 60 per cent of bookings come from Britain in the high season. “I’m planning to come back,” says Uzma, her beaming daughter at her side, “and I’m coming with a group of friends next time.’