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Malaysia 2016 | TOURISM | FOCUS: HALAL TOURISM

With 5.6 million Muslim tourist arrivals in 2014, roughly 20% of all visitors to Malaysia in 2014, and the number one position on the Global Muslim Travel Index 2015, halal tourism is a fast-growing niche market that is poised to drive the country's already well-established tourism industry.

Among the main factors that attract Muslim travelers to Malaysia is the availability of food and goods that have been certified halal by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (JAKIM). The majority of kitchens in hotels and restaurants, as well as fast-food outlets, are compliant with halal requirements and offer an extensive halal menu. Another important factor is the ease with which visitors can carry out the five daily prayers. Within hotels rooms, the norm is to find qiblah signs on the walls or ceilings indicating the direction of the Mecca, as well as information on prayer times, prayers mats, and Qurans available upon request. In public areas such as retail complexes, museums, theme parks and airports, access to prayer facilities is widespread, not to mention access to the large number of mosques around the country near which the call to prayer can be heard. Furthermore, should visitors be required to visit a hospital, they can be assured to find halal-certified kitchens and the use of 100% halal medicine.

This is where Malaysia's booming medical tourism industry interacts with that of halal tourism, giving rise to a new niche that is sharia-complaint medical tourism. According to Zulkifly Md. Said, Director General of the Islamic Tourism Centre, tourist patients coming from Saudi Arabia, Iran, Libya, and Indonesia do so not only because the cost of treatment in Malaysia is lower than in their home countries, but also due to the Muslim-friendly environment, including the option for female patients to be by a female doctor. “Muslim patients that fall under the Muslim medical tourism category are on the increase,” he said. “And of course for the family of the Muslim patient, the Muslim-friendly environment is very suitable for them to be here for a week or so.”

Other factors that attract Muslims to Malaysia are an abundance of Islamic museums, mosques, and unique Islamic tourism attractions, annual Islamic events and Islamic festivals, and a reputation as a peaceful, stable and moderate Muslim country. The Islamic Tourism Centre (ITC) was set up by the Ministry of Tourism in 2009 to further enhance the growth of the industry. In 2012, the ITC launched the Strategic Plan for Islamic Tourism Development, which formally defines Islamic Tourism as “an activity, event and experience undertaken in a state of travel that is in accordance with Islam.” The blueprint outlines how Malaysia can move forward to remain a halal destination of choice, and includes the development of a set of halal standards that outline how key industry players (hotels, travel agencies, and tour guides) can prepare and cater for the Muslim visitors

It is no wonder that Malaysia wants to promote the development of this sector; total spending by Muslim travelers in 2013 equaled $130 billion according to the ITC. This number is expected to rise to $238 billion by 2020. The potential of the halal tourism has also sparked the attention of non-Muslim countries, with Japan, Korea, and Taiwan just some that have realized the spending potential of Muslim visitors and wish to tap into this growing market. In recent years, these have become active in organizing symposiums and seminars to teach local businesses in travel and tourism how to attract and service Muslim travelers. In this sense, many have turned to Malaysia to learn from its expertise. The OIC has approached the ITC to conduct courses on the marketing and promotion of Islamic tourism in developing countries. “The first program was conducted in Gambia this year in March and it was very successful” said Zulkifly Md. Said. Furthermore, the ITC has been appointed “as one of several international agencies to conduct the technical cooperation program for all the tourism agencies and government officials coming from countries where the per capita income is less than Malaysia,” he said, explaining how the country can export its expertise to other nations.

Looking ahead, Malaysia will continue in its efforts to promote the sector's expansion through the development of guidelines for hospitality services and strategic policies that will allow it to gain more prominence and a larger share of the global halal tourism market. Already a leader in the business tourism and eco-tourism segments, a Muslim-friendly image will give tourists even more reasons to continue to visit Malaysia, as well as contribute to the country's position as the world's leading halal hub.