Indonesia aims to attract more Muslim visitors in 'Halal' tourism push

- A Monitor Report 01 Jan, 2018  |    -      +
Lombok : Tourists flock to Indonesia from all over the world to enjoy its beaches, wildlife and heritage sites. But many are coming for religious reasons, too. In 2015, Lombok, whose population is 90 per cent Muslim, was dubbed the "world's best Halal tourism destination" at an annual Muslim travel industry event in Dubai. The island - which has long been overshadowed by glamorous, Hindu-majority Bali, just a 30-minute flight to the west - eagerly seized on the distinction as a unique touristic selling point.

"We don't have to be the 'Muslim Bali,'" Muhammad Adi Farchan, a Halal tour operator, said in the coastal Lombok town of Senggigi. "We are just Muslim Lombok! Muslim paradise."

If the phrase "Halal tourism" - which came into vogue about a decade ago - seems neologistic, it's nevertheless at the cusp of an emerging trend in the travel industry: holidays that don't merely accommodate religious Muslims, but actively cater to them. A term most commonly used to describe food provenance, "Halal" more broadly means religiously permissible per Muslim law.

As the world's largest Muslim country, Indonesia has pinned hopes on the Halal market to expand its US$13 billion tourism industry, which lags behind those of neighbours like Thailand and Singapore. Lombok is in West Nusa Tenggara province, which is one of three government-designated "priority" Halal destinations, along with West Sumatra and Aceh. Jakarta's deputy governor Sandiaga Uno has expressed interest in developing a "sharia tourism zone" in the nation's capital, and recently announced that the city would build "sharia-based" hotels.

About 2.7 million tourists visited halal destinations in Indonesia in 2016, according to a Tourism Ministry spokesperson, out of about 12 million foreign tourists in total. The greatest increase was seen in Lombok, which the ministry credits to Halal tourism.

Lombok welcomed about 3 million foreign and domestic tourists last year. On this island, nearly all the food - fish satay, chicken smeared with eponymous Lombok chili sambal - is already Halal, and you're never more than five minutes from a mosque. Nearly every hotel, restaurant and beach club has a musholla, or prayer room. And since the island's population is mostly Muslim, the odds are that a tour guide for any activity - from trekking the volcanic Mount Rinjani to diving with sea turtles - can accommodate religious considerations.

"Indonesia is great to visit because we don't have to explain why we want things like prayer rooms and certified Halal food," said Omar, a 52-year-old tourist from Saudi Arabia who did not want to use his last name, at the flagship Islamic Centre mosque complex in the provincial capital Mataram. "Everyone is Muslim, so they already understand."

Such travellers could significantly boost Indonesia's tourism revenue, officials hope. Visitors from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia spend more money on average - about US$1,500 to US$1,700 per person per trip - than other tourists to Indonesia, who spend around US$1,200 per person, according to Arief Yahya, Indonesia's tourism minister.

But the number of Middle Eastern and Gulf tourists to all of Indonesia hovered around just 200,000 last year, compared to 600,000 who visited nearby Thailand. To attract more of these lucrative tourists, Indonesia has pushed for more direct flights from Gulf carriers like Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways and reframed its promotion of destinations outside Bali.

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