Have halal, will travel

Have halal, will travel

As economies around the world sputter and stagnate, the tourism industry has found an eager and underdeveloped market in the Muslim community, which is expected to spend US$140 billion (S$181 billion) on international travel this year, according to CrescentRating, a Muslim travel industry consultancy.

Until a couple of years ago, Muslim travellers around the world largely spent their travel dollars on other Muslim destinations such as Turkey, United Arab Emirates and Indonesia.

Now, as the tourism industry becomes more aware of what Muslim travellers need - catering predominantly to the need for halal food and access to prayer facilities - Muslims are venturing farther into Europe and Asia. Favourite destinations include France, Italy, South Korea and Japan.

Due to stable or growing economies and large populations in Muslim countries, Muslim travel expenditure is projected to rise to US$200 billion by 2020.

Says Mr Fazal Bahardeen, 51, founder and chief executive of CrescentRating, a Singapore-based Muslim hospitality ranking and consulting firm: "Muslim countries such as Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia are fast-growing economies where populations are beginning to have the disposable income they did not have 10 to 15 years ago."

There are 1.6 billion Muslims globally, accounting for almost a quarter of the world's population. About half are under the age of 25, making it a young and rapidly growing market.

Until two or three years ago, many destinations such as Italy or South Korea were impractical for Muslims. The main barrier was the lack of halal food, the top concern for close to 70 per cent of Muslim travellers, according to a 2012 study by CrescentRating and DinarStandard, a New York-based research and advisory firm.

Non-Muslim countries were either unaware or unprepared to meet halal requirements. This meant that Muslim travellers were forced to rely on packaged food such as instant noodles, bread and fruit, or take time-consuming diversions to find halal restaurants, including in destinations such as South Korea and Japan.

Korean food is largely pork-based and while Japanese seafood is halal, its typical preparation with soya sauce, which often contains alcohol, or mirin, a Japanese rice wine, makes it haram, or forbidden, by Islamic law. Other meats such as beef and chicken are not halal-certified.

This is slowly changing, however, as Korean and Japanese tourism boards eager to attract Muslim tourists are partnering with Muslim travel agents and consulting agencies such as CrescentRating to meet Muslim needs.

Japan and South Korea are hot destinations for Muslim travellers, who are enamoured of those cultures and excited by the prospect of visiting countries that were once less convenient.

The Japan National Tourism Organisation in Singapore started researching the Muslim market in 2011, according to its deputy director, Ms Susan Ong.

Since then, Narita International in Tokyo, Kansai International in Osaka and Central International Airport in Nagoya have renovated their facilities to include prayer rooms and a number of halal restaurants.

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