Tourist ar­rivals from key ma­jor­ity Mus­lim na­tions have soared to 6.03m last year

New Straits Times - - Business -

FBANGKOK ROM ho­tels with seg­re­gated swim­ming pools to jelly made from sea­weed in­stead of pig bones, Bud­dhist Thai­land is chas­ing ha­lal gold as it wel­comes Mus­lim vis­i­tors and touts its wares to the Is­lamic world.

In­side the cav­ernous din­ing hall of the five-star Al Meroz ho­tel in a Mus­lim sub­urb of the cap­i­tal, an el­derly man with a wispy beard re­cites verses of the Qu­ran as a ner­vous-look­ing groom awaits the ar­rival of his bride.

The young man bursts into a smile as his soon-to-be wife ap­pears, clad in a bril­liant white dress with match­ing head­scarf.

The cer­e­mony is one of dozens of mar­riages held over the last few months at the Al Meroz — the city’s first en­tirely ha­lal ho­tel.

Thai­land has long been a draw for the world’s sun-seek­ers and he­do­nists, drawn to its par­ties, red-light dis­tricts, cheap booze and trop­i­cal beaches.

But it has also seen a huge in­flux of vis­i­tors from Mus­lim coun­tries, part of a quiet but de­lib­er­ate strat­egy by the South­east Asian na­tion to di­ver­sify its vis­i­tor pro­file.

“Con­sid­er­ing there are 1.5 bil­lion Mus­lims around the world, I think this is a very good mar­ket,” ex­plains Sanya Saen­boon, the gen­eral man­ager of the ho­tel.

The ho­tel opened its doors last year, set­ting it­self apart with its at­ten­tion to all things Is­lamic.

For a start there is no al­co­hol on sale, while the top floor swim­ming pool and gym has spe­cific times for when men and women can use the fa­cil­i­ties.

Ev­ery­thing in the build­ing has been ticked off against strin­gent check­list for prac­tis­ing Mus­lims, from bed linen washed in a par­tic­u­lar way, to en­sur­ing toi­letries are free of al­co­hol or an­i­mal fat — mak­ing ev­ery­day goods “per­mis­si­ble” for the faith­ful.

Sanya, who is Mus­lim, says such checks give vis­i­tors “peace of mind” so clients never have to ask them­selves “can I eat this?”

Thai­land has seen an ex­plo­sion in tourist ar­rivals, from 13.8 mil­lion an­nual vis­i­tors in 2006 to a record 32.5 mil­lion last year.

West­ern ar­rivals have largely re­mained a con­stant. The biggest in­crease in ar­rivals comes from China, sky­rock­et­ing from just 949,000 ar­rivals 10 years ago to 8.7 mil­lion vis­i­tors last year.

But Mus­lim coun­tries are also send­ing their cit­i­zens.

An AFP anal­y­sis of gov­ern­ment fig­ures shows vis­i­tors from key ma­jor­ity Mus­lim na­tions in the Mid­dle East and Asia have risen from 2.63 mil­lion in 2006 to 6.03 mil­lion last year.

“Thai­land was ahead of the curve,” says Fazal Ba­harden, founder of the Sin­ga­pore-based Cres­cent Rat­ing, which rates which coun­tries are most wel­com­ing to Mus­lim trav­ellers.

Thai­land rou­tinely places in the top two for non-Mus­lim ma­jor­ity na­tions along­side Sin­ga­pore in Cres­cent Rat­ings’ an­nual sur­vey of ha­lal des­ti­na­tions.

“They’ve re­ally recog­nised the Mus­lim con­sumer mar­ket is worth tap­ping into,” he ex­plains, adding med­i­cal tourism, shop­ping and high qual­ity ho­tels are the pri­mary draws.

Ba­harden says the Is­lamic travel mar­ket is one of the world’s fastest grow­ing thanks the growth of cheap flights and boom­ing Mus­lim mid­dle classes.

He es­ti­mates the num­ber of Mus­lim trav­ellers has surged from around 25 mil­lion a year in 2000 to 117 mil­lion in 2015.

But it is not just at home that Thai­land has gone ha­lal.

From chicken and seafood to rice and canned fruit, the coun­try has long been one of the world’s great food ex­porters.

Now a grow­ing num­bers of food com­pa­nies are switch­ing to ha­lal to widen their cus­tomer base.

Against a back­drop of hum­ming ma­chines churn­ing out but­ter, Lalana Thi­ranu­sornkij, a Bud­dhist, ex­plains how her fam­ily turned their three fac­to­ries — un­der the KCG Cor­po­ra­tion ban­ner — ha­lal to ac­cess mar­kets in In­done­sia, Malaysia and in the Gulf.

But go­ing ha­lal some­times re­quired some clever work­arounds, such as how to avoid an­i­mal based gelatin to make jelly.

“In the past we used gelatin from pork but... we changed our gelatin from a pork source to a sea­weed source,” she said.

The gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates the ha­lal food in­dus­try is al­ready worth US$6 bil­lion (RM6.55 bil­lion a year.

As Thai­land has quickly learned, there’s gold at the end of the ha­lal rain­bow. Bloomberg


Al Meroz ho­tel gen­eral man­ager Sanya Saen­boon says he aims to give Mus­lim tourists peace of mind.

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