Singapore

Halal travel offers golden ticket for Asia

Asian countries are adapting to accommodate Muslim tourists as the US continues to alienate them

As the United States applies the pilliwinks to travellers from select Muslim countries (starting with Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iran), holidaymakers from Islamic nations are renewing their romance with Asia, from shopping in Singapore to experiencing monsoon downpours in Penang.

Asian countries have been quick to respond with Muslim-friendly features such as halal restaurants and even alcohol-free halal hotels - with separate lifts for men and women, segregated swimming pool hours, prayer mats, and food prepared according to religious requirements.

While all this may appear excessively prudish and unmanageable by Western standards, it has been nothing short of liberating for many Muslim travellers, especially women.

The halal craze is not some faddish rush to cosy up to a new poster-child demographic in the hope of a few crumbs. It is serious business with serious underpinnings. Islamic travel is estimated to be worth US$220 billion (S$304 billion) by 2020, and that green carpet is rolling out faster than you could say, "Salaam aleikum" or "Take that, Mr Trump".

According to the Singapore-based CrescentRating that has just concluded its latest survey with MasterCard, called the Global Muslim Travel Index 2017, or GMTI, there were 121 million Muslim visitor arrivals last year.

In Asia, the countries best poised for the influx are Singapore and Malaysia.

Based on points awarded for "attractiveness to Muslim tourists", Asia topped the GMTI with a score of 57.6, followed by Africa with 47. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Americas racked up just 33 points.

Individually, Malaysia led the rankings with a score of 81.9, followed by the UAE (76.9) and Indonesia (72.6).

Singapore (10th overall) with 67.3 outperformed both Bangladesh (60) and India (48.7).

Interestingly, India (ranked 40th worldwide on this scale) has the second largest Muslim population in the world behind Indonesia. Yet it weighed in below Buddhist Sri Lanka (with its score of 49) and the much abused US that pulled off a somewhat respectable 48.9.

This will come as a surprise to staunch Indophiles, if not to others convalescing from Delhi Belly and the after effects of foolhardy street food adventures.

But the culprit is not food. It is safety.

Too many toe-curling headlines have left demand for India limp, regardless of whether travellers are Muslim or not.That is part of a larger malaise.

NOT STRICTLY HALAL

And while several great Indian hotel chains from Taj and Oberoi to Leela, all brim with the right sort of Muslim-friendly sensibility, none can claim the green mantle.

They are not strictly in any sense halal hotels, sorely lacking in prudence on alcohol consumption and the necessary male-female segregation to earn that nom de guerre.

One might argue that in India, despite the machinations of a saffron government, syncretic, tolerant Islam is so much part of the nation's fabric that catering exclusively for the halal crowd would be as risible as having five-star hotels just for Brahmins, Sikhs, Hindus or Christians.

Even avant-garde US would not entertain the notion of a kosher Jewish hotel or beds for Catholics who want in-room rosaries and free ecumenical wine. Sensible hotels cater for all segments.

Yet, halal status is exactly what Japan is aiming for.

Having realised that its showcase sakura - and the limping gross domestic product too - could acquire a fuller bloom with an injection of visitor cash, the country is pulling out all the stops, from prayer mats at airports to silk hijabs in storefronts, and halal menus at restaurants.

It is one way Japan hopes to get to that 20-million visitor number in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The writer runs the online magazines SmartTravelAsia.com and AsianConversations.com. This article was published in The Business Times yesterday.

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