The importance of being halal was earnestly stressed at the inaugural Malaysian Association of Tours and Travel Agents (Matta) Muslim Travel Dialogue. Much of the discourse among the speakers that day sought to reveal the needs and expectations of Muslim travellers.
In order to tap into the market, Matta chairman (Government Liaison/ Muslim Travel) Datuk Yaacob Haji Hussin said travel operators first have to understand the Muslim traveller’s psyche.
“We have to understand that Islam is not just a religion, but also a way of living. It is hard or even unthinkable for some Muslims to give up their Islamic path for the sake of relaxation,” he said.
Yaacob noted that while Muslims want to experience different cultures and environments on a holiday, there are certain circumstances they must abide by.
“Not all Muslims are the same, of course. They differ in the way they exercise their religion and there are gradations in how strict they are with it.
“Some do not care if others beside them consume alcohol, or if their hotel has no prayer room, or if their food is not halal. However, even a moderate Muslim would prefer to go somewhere that has aspects of halal tourism,” he said.
The way Matta deputy president Rohizam Md Yusoff sees it, many countries are beginning to cater to halal travel due to the great economic potential of the market.
“The size of the Muslim travel market is huge and the number of Muslim travellers is increasing globally. Many nations are vying for the attention of these travellers to visit their countries,” he said.
Rohizam’s statement was corroborated by tourism officials from South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Macao and Indonesia at the dialogue. Many of these countries have guide books just for Muslim travellers. Japan has a compass which determines the direction of the Qibla. And in Thailand, a Muslim-friendly tourist app that’s available on both Android and iOS platforms was launched last year.
“Some have even branded or packaged their countries as Syariah-compliant, designed halal tours and promoted religious tourism,” Rohizam added.
The MasterCard-CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index (GMTI) 2016 revealed that there were an estimated 117 million Muslim visitor arrivals globally last year, representing close to 10% of the entire travel market.
This is forecast to grow to 168 million visitors by 2020, or 11% of the market segment, with a market value projected to exceed US$200bil (RM822bil).
Halal Industry Development Corporation general manager (Strategic Planning and Monitoring) Syaifulzafni Aziz said the global Muslim population is set to reach 26% of the world’s total population by 2030. According to him, this means more opportunities for Islamic services which will extend to the travel industry as well.
“The Muslim traveller section is growing in terms of population and purchasing power,” Syaifulzafni noted.
Yaacob said surveys conducted have shown that Muslim travellers travel with more family members, stay for a longer period and tend to spend more money than any other tourism niche market.
“For these reasons, tourism brands across the globe are adapting their services to meet the needs of these guests,” he said.
Islamic Tourism Centre of Malaysia director general Zulkifly Md Said said two areas operators have to look into are halal food and prayer facilities.
“They are the most basic aspects that Muslim travellers look for when travelling. Promoting these two elements would be a strong factor in attracting Muslim clients to any country,” he advised.
Zulkifly highlighted Malaysia as a prime example of halal tourism.
“Muslim-friendly facilities such as bidet, sajjadah, prayer times, Qibla direction and female prayer garments can be easily obtained here. At most commercial buildings or public facilities, you may also find mussola or prayer room available,” he said. Sajjadah is the rug used for the five daily prayers.
A strong push towards the halal logo has also contributed to the country’s success.
“For Muslim tourists visiting Malaysia, their first point of reference when it comes to making a halal choice is the iconic Malaysian halal logo. It is displayed in almost all halal restaurants,” Zulkifly explained.
Malaysia has maintained its position as the world’s most popular destination in the global Muslim travel market, according to the GMTI 2016.
All 130 destinations in the GMTI were scored against a backdrop of criteria that included suitability as a family holiday destination, the level of services and facilities, accommodation, marketing initiatives as well as visitor arrivals.
Zulkifly said Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are already positioning themselves as Muslim-friendly destinations, while Singapore, New Zealand and Australia are slowly building their reputation for halal tourism.
“Muslims around the world, no matter what background they come from, should try to reach out to other Muslims and non-Muslims alike to strengthen the silaturahim and to understand each other’s way of life, culture and tradition,” he said. (Silaturahim is the Arabic word for friendship, something that the speakers at the dialogue believe will be strengthened with better understanding of the Islamic faith.)