Seoul among the worldâ€™s top Muslim-friendly destinations, but greater awareness of its halal facilities and warm welcome is needed
South Korea is becoming an attractive destination for Muslim travellers. For the first time, the country was counted among the top 10 non-Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) countries in the latest Global Muslim Travel Index by MasterCard and CrescentRating.
This means South Korea is joining the ranks of other top Muslim-friendly, non-OIC countries on the list â€“ such as Singapore, Thailand and the UK â€“ that are actively taking into account the needs of Muslim travellers in order to attract what is billed in the report as â€śone of the fastest growing tourism sectors worldwideâ€ť.
MasterCard and CrescentRating believe that the number of Muslim travellers worldwide will grow to 230 million by 2026, up from 140 million visitors in 2019. Tourism receipts from the sector are expected to reach US$300 billion, a projected growth of 35 per cent from their estimate of US$220 billion for 2020.
As South Koreaâ€™s business capital, Seoul has been steadily introducing facilities and resources to help Muslims feel welcome, and with good reason. Muslims currently make up 20 per cent of participants at meetings supported by Seoul Convention Bureau (SCB). The number is still growing.
SCBâ€™s informal research suggests that Muslim event attendees tend to stay longer than the average visitor, and place greater value on unique, authentic and hands-on experiences of Korean culture and traditions.
This means that Seoul is uniquely positioned to attract this market, among them increasingly powerful Indonesian and Malaysian companies and associations. After all, it has attractions and activities tailored to fans of the K-Wave, such as the broadcasting theme park tour held by entertainment company MBC World, SMTown Coex Artium in Gangnam, as well as K-pop singing and dancing experiences.
Venues in Seoul have also been stepping up to become more Muslim-friendly. Coex, for instance, has taken the first step to include a prayer room for business visitors and the option of requesting for halal food from its in-house caterer, Gramercy.
Two of its hotels, Intercontinental Seoul Coex and Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas, have included a prayer time clock, the Qurâ€™an, and a compass in guestrooms for Muslim guests.
Ji-hyun Kim, director, MICE planning team, SCB, believes that awareness of such Muslim-friendly resources and facilities in Seoul still needs to be strengthened through initiatives like fam trips.
Currently, Muslim delegates can access the Muslim-friendly Travel page on the Visit Korea website to browse attractions and hotels with prayer rooms, as well as halal-certified restaurants.
There is also still much room for improvement in terms of Muslim-friendly infrastructure and systems.
A Jakarta-based event executive, who asked to remain anonymous, suggested that Seoul hotels could indicate the prayer direction in rooms, and the city could also encourage more attractions to provide prayer rooms.
While achieving the basics in being Muslim-friendly is becoming more pertinent, recent reports on the Muslim traveller market from MasterCard and CrescentRating, as well as communications company TBWA, show that a new generation of Muslim travellers are looking for destinations to provide more than just halal food and prayer rooms at venues and attractions.
Eco-friendly, socially responsible tourism enterprises that walk the talk are well-regarded by this new generation that is now entering the workforce and will be among event delegation.
For Seoul to shine as a welcoming destination for Muslims event delegates, the city will need to engaging more tourism businesses to make the right moves.