Travel by definition is not static — it's being on the move, with changing locations and changing perspectives. In a new series, Travel + Leisure is profiling some of the game changers in the travel sphere that are taking innovation on the road.
From an early age, Elena Nikolova seemed destined to become a world traveler. Born in Bulgaria, raised in Greece, and a resident in the U.K., Nikolova has long expressed a curiosity to learn about other cultures through her passion for travel.
Known under her pen name, Muslim Travel Girl, Nikolova now helps women and men around the world to achieve their own travel goals by advising on everything from the best halal restaurants in London to women’s legal rights when it comes to wearing a hijab in an airport.
Nikolova converted to Islam seven years ago and started the blog in 2013 when she noticed a dearth of information specific to Muslim, millennial travelers. Her blog comes at a time that has become particularly fraught for Muslim travelers, between a series of travel bans to the U.S. and frequent allegations of racial profiling in airports.
“My main element of why I do what I do is to show Muslims that everything’s possible, and you should travel and experience because you don’t want to be marginalized. And to non-Muslims, [I want] to show them that we are actually cool people and that we want everything that any other human being wants,” she said.
T+L: How did you first become inspired to start this blog?
Elena Nikolova: “From a super young age, I was always inspired to travel. Coming from a multicultural background, it’s always a part of discovering yourself through the cultures and the people you meet.”
“I think when I was 13 or 14 I was like ‘Mom I want to have my own travel agency and travel around the world.’ I guess the modern version of a travel agent is to be a travel blogger.”
T+L Your blog is something that was made with millennials in mind. How did you plan for this audience, or did you draw more on your own experience as a millennial?
"One of the excuses I was hearing is 'traveling is so expensive. And you can’t afford to travel.’ So it’s about breaking those barriers. And actually, about 30 percent of my audience is non-Muslims and visit because they like a different perspective."
T+L What unique challenges do you think Muslim women face when they’re traveling abroad?
"If you’re a guy, a Muslim guy can look like any other guy out there — however, as a Muslim when you wear a headscarf, you automatically become a visible Muslim. And you start representing Islam and yourself at the same time. And living in the current situation where we live, Muslims are seen as being the root of all evil in a way. [Laughs]. It can be very challenging, especially going through the airport. A lot of women have had issues being asked to remove their hijab, when in reality they don’t have to remove their hijab."
"It creates fear, it creates segregation, and it [causes] women to actually travel to countries that are only Muslim. There are a lot of girls starting out now to travel to more non-Muslim countries, but because it feels more comfortable, usually Muslims go to Muslim countries."
T+L What in your own travel has inspired you?
"My family, especially my father, was very closed-minded. Starting to travel more and seeing me being an example, he has opened up a lot more to the fact that I’m Muslim and to the fact that there are different cultures apart from being Greek out there."
“The other thing is receiving emails. I receive hundreds of emails a week from girls that have traveled, or families that have taken trips to places they wouldn’t consider otherwise.”
T+L You mentioned before that you eat halal and wear the hijab. Are there elements of food and style that you pay close attention to in that respect?
"I dress modestly and I try to dress modestly. I’m not very conservative, so I think also my blog represents the more modern millennials rather than the very conservative millennials. But I blog about the things I do — I get a lot of questions about how I dress. In places that I know are dominantly Muslim, I’ll potentially wear a turban instead of a scarf, but not always. Like in the morning I just wore a headscarf, the same as a hijab, and I just walked out, and I think it’s great. And I love doing it in Greece because they get shocked I actually speak Greek!”
"I’ve traveled in several countries and I’ve never had an issue finding a halal restaurant anywhere I’ve been. There’s at least one halal restaurant because there’s so many Muslims offering halal food. It’s just a matter of how flexible you are, and that’s what I’m trying to change with where you go and how important is halal food to you in that sense. Because you are missing out if you’re not visiting Prague, or you’re not going to a Greek island like Santorini — which is one of the number one places every Muslim girl wants to go because it’s so romantic — you technically can’t go because there is no halal food. So you’re limiting yourself. What I’m trying to do is just open the mind."