SINAN TAVSAN and ERWIDA MAULIA, Nikkei staff writers
KONYA, Turkey/JAKARTA The global economy may be in a funk, but the travel market is still going strong. Muslim-friendly halal tourism is showing particularly healthy growth and is becoming a top priority for two of the world’s biggest Muslim democracies, Turkey and Indonesia.
At the beginning of May, Turkey hosted the second International Halal Tourism Conference, one of the world’s biggest events of its kind, in Konya. Situated in the country’s pious Anatolian heartland, this city is where the 13th-century Persian poet, philosopher and Sufi mystic Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi spent the last few decades of his life. His shrine, now a museum, attracts followers and tourists from all over the world, especially on Dec. 17, when his death is commemorated with rituals such as a massive whirling dervish ceremony.
With more than 1,000 participants and over 30 exhibitors from such countries as Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Mauritius, attendance at the Konya conference was up 40% from the inaugural event in Europe in 2014, in Granada, Spain — another city known for its Islamic heritage.
Turkey is the world’s sixth-largest tourist destination, with 40 million annual visitors, mainly from Europe and Russia. However, tourist numbers from Islamic countries have also been rising in recent years. Then-Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Mahir Unal told the conference that the number of Muslim tourists exceeded 7.6 million in 2015, up 30% from the previous year.
SEPARATE BEACHES Since 99% of its population is Muslim, Turkey is naturally considered a “Muslim-friendly” destination, with plentiful halal food and prayer facilities. However, due to the secular modern history of the country and the fact that most visiting tourists come from the West, Turkey has only a dozen tourism facilities designed for strictly observant, halal-conscious Muslims, who insist on environments that are free of alcoholic beverages and have separate pools and beaches for men and women.
According to the Global Muslim Travel Index 2016, published in Jakarta in March by MasterCard and CrescentRating, a leading player in the halal travel industry, Turkey occupies the third position in the sector after Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates. Indonesia, whose population is 88% Muslim, climbed two spots to become the fourth-most popular destination.
GMTI rankings are based on criteria such as suitability as a family holiday destination, level of service and facilities, accommodations options, marketing initiatives, visitor arrivals, air connectivity and visa restrictions.
Another attendee at the Konya conference, Jonathan Wilson from the U.K.’s University of Greenwich, said Turkey was in a good position to do well in the sector, although he noted that there was no universally accepted definition of halal tourism — which is also known as “Muslim-friendly tourism” or “family-friendly tourism.”
“Since the 9/11 attacks [in the U.S.], one of the reactions of the Muslim community has been to overcome negative stereotypes by increasing tourism, luxury fashion shopping, etc.,” Wilson said. “With its deep Islamic heritage, convenient geographical location and well-established tourism know-how and experience, Turkey should not settle for anything but the No. 1 position.”
However, Turkey has more to do to attract observant halal-conscious Muslim tourists, according to industry representatives.