'Travel Islam' becomes holiday trend of next year

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The Independent Travel

Lonely Planet has tipped the Islamic world as next year's top travel destination. The travel guide series' 2008 Blue List guide includes an entire section on the best Islamic destinations, despite continued warnings from the Foreign Office not to travel to certain parts of the Muslim world.

Among the top 10 countries and regions it recommends readers to visit are Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kashmir as well as the less-visited and more troubled parts of the Middle East. Even conflict-hit Afghanistan and Iraq make in on to the itinerary.

But a quick glance through the Foreign Office's travel advice for these parts might safely be expected to extinguish the ardour of even the most determined Marco Polo. British diplomats warn against travel to parts of Pakistan, scene of a suicide bomb attack this week which claimed the lives of more than 130 people, as well as describing a high threat of terrorism and sectarian violence.

In Uzbekistan, home to Bukhara, one of the holiest cities in central Asia, there is danger from unexploded land mines and visitors are urged to be "vigilant in public places".

North Yemen affords a "high threat" from gunmen. The alarm is similarly sounded for Kashmir – where there is a "high level of conflict" and warnings of grenade attacks. So too with Syria and Oman.

Yet according to Lonely Planet's Tom Hall the special feature on Islam is far from irresponsible with a growing interest in the Muslim world spawned, in part he admits, by the relentless bad news emanating from the region. "Highlighting the positive benefits of Islamic destinations is compatible with responsible travel provided people do what they always have done which is do their research before they go," he said.

He concedes that Iraq, which gets a special mention for Karbala city, where travellers will find the tomb of Mohammed's grandson, has been off the list since the US-led invasion in 2003, while Pakistan has been "bubbling under for a while and certain areas are too dangerous to go to".

But he said Islam serves up a wide variety of holiday experiences from city breaks in Morocco to longer trips to witness the extraordinary cultures of west Africa, Indonesia and beyond. However he keeps the faith in his readers. "The sort of travellers who would go to Pakistan would be aware of the risk of travelling to edgier destinations and make their plans accordingly," he said.

Alongside some more conventional recommendations such as India's Taj Mahal and the belly dancers of Istanbul are some lesser known destinations.

For example, the Hunza Valley in "the secret soul of Pakistan", where cherry blossom and apricots adorn the Karakorum Highway, or the old quarter souqs in Aleppo, Mutrah and San'a where "coffee pots and copper plates, tanning hides and bales of wool, plastic trays and mosque clocks pile the alleyways of these garrulous, gossiping, grumbling organs of trade throughout the Islamic world".

Mr Hall added: "Saudi Arabia has some of the best diving in the world and the finest archaeological sites which receive virtually zero visitors. There are a lot of misunderstandings about the Islamic world and the people that live there."

Five top spots: by Simon Calder

Istanbul, Turkey

This city is woven from ancient threads, a tangle of more than two millennia of political and religious intrigue. The Aya Sofia was a sixth-century celebration of Christianity built by the emperor Justinian. One thousand years later, when Constantinople crumpled under the Ottoman advance, the church became a mosque and four minarets were attached. And when the Turkish Republic was proclaimed in 1924, the mosque was deconsecrated and is now a glorious museum. The other essential highlight, the Topkapi Palace, was built by Mehmet II in 1459 to mark the ascendance of the Ottoman Empire. It reflects the dominance of the sultans over large tracts of Europe and the Middle East until the 19th century.

Lake Kenyir, Malaysia

The eastern shore of peninsular Malaysia is the most devoutly Muslim part of this south-east Asian nation, and the towns and cities along the coast are studded with mosques – many of them modern, built with oil revenue. A short way inland, a lake has been created in the middle of deep jungle, providing a welcome respite to the increasingly hectic life in metropolitan Malaysia. The forest is boasts a wealth of cacophonous and colourful bird life.

Fez, Morocco

GB Airways starts flights from Gatwick to Fez on 30 October – believing this glorious city will attract travellers who want to immerse themselves in Morocco at its most intense. Muslim Morocco was born in Fez, and plunging into the heart of Fez-el-Bali is about the most extraordinary, almost medieval, experience you can have in the Islamic world: the tangle of lanes has remained unchangingly baffling for centuries.

Granada, Spain

Many other eminent Spanish cities exude class, but only Granada has so dramatic a mountain setting, topped by the magnificence of the Alhambra, Iberia's greatest monument to Moorish creativity. The city was first settled by the north Africans in 711, and by the 14th century Granada was the magnificent final flourish of Islamic occupation. Just under three hours' flying time from Stansted, this hilltop collection of palaces seems impossibly exotic. Admire it from all angles, then get a close-up of the delicate Mudejar interiors. Granada seems to be rediscovering its north African heritage – there is even a recently opened Islamic Centre.

Zanzibar, Tanzania

The Portuguese and British took turns at leaving their mark on Zanzibar, but it was Arabian traders who had the most enduring influence on the island – not least by introducing Islam, now practised by 95 per cent of the people. In the capital, Stone Town, the inhabitants – and their homes – comprise an eclectic but entrancing mix of African, Arab, Persian and Indian. At the northern tip of Zanzibar is the divine resort of Nungwi, with a classically palm-fringed beach.

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