Opinion: Asian countries capture big revenues from Muslim tourists

By Rahat Hussain

halalfood-4-webWASHINGTON, September 27, 2013 — Japan’s Kansai International Airport has recently certified one of its noodle restaurants as “halal” in an attempt to attract Muslim tourists. The move is part of a larger effort throughout Asian countries to capitalize on the growing Muslim middle class in a variety of Asian countries.

Not to be left behind, Thailand has opened a series of gender-segregated “halal” spas catering to Muslims travelling from abroad. Korea News further reports that the Gyeonggi-do province of South Korea is “is making efforts to promote tourism among Muslims.”

“Halal” is the Arabic word for “Islamically permissible.” While the word is typically used in reference to meat butchered according to Islamic standards, the meaning of this term can be expanded to include any permissible behavior or activity.

Tracking the efforts of these and other countries is a company called CrescentRating.com, which ranks various countries by friendliness and convenience to Muslim visitors. According to the company, the top three countries for Muslim-friendly dining and entertainment options are Singapore, Bosnia, and Thailand.

The company’s website also provides a travel guide for Muslims visiting predominantly non-Muslim countries, such as Japan and Australia. The guides even cover cities in the US, to include Seattle and Dallas. To help tourists in transit, the company even boasts an “Inflight Prayer Time” calculator, to help Muslims calculate when to perform the daily Islamic salaat prayers.

The new commercial initiative is lucrative for host countries.  “According to [the] Gyeonggi Tourism Organization, Korea had a total of 11.1 million visitors last year and 4.4% came from countries with Islam as the state religion. Of the 170,000 and 140,000 visitors from Malaysia and Indonesia respectively, 42% visited Gyeonggi-do Province,” says Korea News.

Thailand’s twenty two million annual visitors from Muslim countries helped tourism revenues jump to thirty one billion dollars last year. In response, the Thai resort city of Pattaya has opened Islamic prayer rooms in nearly all of its top shopping centers.

Prayer rooms in commercial centers are becoming a key effort to entice Muslim customers. South Korea’s official tourism bureaus have begun advising businesses on how to construct facilities that meet Muslim prayer requirements.

In several instances, the tourism organizations have provided prayer mats, signs, and even architectural plans to restaurants and other businesses who sought assistance in catering to Muslim crowds.

Korean News reports, “In addition to tourist attractions, the prayer rooms will also be added to hospitals for the benefit of Muslim patients and to increase medical tourism.”

The Thai tourism authority posted a video on its Facebook account, entitled “Muslim Friendly Thailand.” The video is a commercial advertising Muslim couples, children, and even whole families enjoying themselves in a welcoming Thai atmosphere.

To help facilitate the visits, many countries have relaxed legal requirements to enter the country. Japan has loosened travel visa restrictions for visitors from Southeast Asian countries such as Indonesia, with the highest population percentage of Muslims in the world.

The country waived travel visa requirements entirely for tourists from Malaysia, another source of Muslim travelers.

The efforts have largely succeeded, with Japan counting 43.1% more Indonesians than a year ago, 17.5% more Malaysians, and more Muslims from various other countries as well.  Desiring a larger amount of the money spending Muslim tourists, Kansai International Airport is expanding its efforts with “increased Muslim friendly services.”

“We are planning to become Japan’s first Muslim-friendly airport,” were remarks made to the Japanese media outlet, The Asashi Shinbum, by Akihisa Tabe, the general manager of the Kansai International Airport operator.