Japan on the frontline of the meteoric rise of halal travel
HALAL travel is one of the most lucrative markets in the global travel industry.
In 2015, 117 million Muslims traveled overseas, and by 2020, that number is projected to reach 168 million, equating to US$200 billion in spending, according to figures tabulated by halal travel authority CrescentRating.
This rapid growth can be attributed to several factors including a growing Muslim middle class in Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, Nigeria and Bangladesh and in the Gulf countries, a younger population of Muslims who are keen to travel and an increased access to travel information.
While most Muslims travel for leisure, business travel accounts for about 10 percent of all halal travel.
Malaysia is the world’s most popular destination for Muslim travelers due to its many family-friendly destinations, Muslim-friendly services (being a Muslim-majority country) and halal awareness marketing.
Despite Malaysia being the golden child of halal travel, many other nations in the region are taking it upon themselves to provide for Muslim travelers, or risk losing out on a significantly rewarding market.
What Muslim travelers want
It makes sense more major cities are providing halal-friendly travel services to make Muslims feel welcome.
The most important factor for a Muslim traveler is the prevalence of halal food in a foreign city. One of the biggest obstacles for Muslim travelers is identifying halal-certified restaurants featuring local cuisine.
Singapore-based lifestyle platform that caters to Muslim travelers Have Halal Will Travel (HHWT) has been curating handy guides to halal restaurants in major Asian cities.
The HHWT co-founder and CEO Mikhail Goh told Travel Wire Asia, “Being able to eat halal local food is important, as food is a huge part of why people travel.”
Muslim travelers, too, want to be able to enjoy local cuisine without having to resign to kebab shops all the time.
Prayer facilities are also essential, taking into account that performing prayers is one of the central elements of Islamic practice and is the second of the five pillars of Islam. Some Muslims also expect facilities for wudhu, a type of ablution performed before prayers.
Water-usage friendly bathrooms, Ramadhan services, recreational facilities with privacy are bonuses for Muslims, and more overseas accommodations are beginning to take notice.
However, as much as the industry singles out Muslims as a unique market, their overriding desire to have a memorable trip is similar to that of any other market.
Why Muslims are flooding into Japan
Japan is reaping the benefits of the growing halal market by fast becoming a favorite destination among Muslims, particularly Malaysians and Indonesians.
Major cities such as Kyoto, Tokyo, and Osaka have put in much efforts to secure the halal market following a growing awareness about Islam, and at it, a win-win relationship was born.
“Although it can still be a challenge to find halal food and prayer spaces in other cities besides Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, we’ve seen an increase in halal eateries serving authentic Japanese cuisine as well as prayer spaces, mostly concentrated near or at popular attractions,” Goh said.
Hotels in Japan are also getting on board by providing halal food options and prayer spaces. Muslim travelers tend to gravitate towards private pools and en-suite bathrooms, especially when traveling with families, the elderly or children.
“Japanese tour operators are also providing Muslim-friendly tours for unique local experiences such as halal sushi-making classes,” Goh said.
Where safety and mounting Islamophobia is a concern in United States and Europe, a first-world nation like Japan makes Muslims feel safe by way of its citizens’ general politeness.
Goh said Muslims were more drawn to the idea of visiting Japan “compared to the possibility of facing prejudices when traveling to Western countries”.
Understanding the Muslim traveler
Goh said Japan still had work to do as a Muslim-friendly destination, especially with marketing of halal travel through online media.
“Promotion of these services is still largely in print form through brochures and leaflets while most decisions are made prior to arriving at the destination,” she said.
“This might stem from a lack of understanding of the purchasing behavior of modern Muslims, who generally spend a significant amount of time online researching a destination for such services and facilities.” she said.
Plus, the Japanese government could do with collecting better data about Muslim travel behavior. For instance, Goh’s team at HHWT has data to prove Mount Fuji is one of the top Japanese destinations for Muslims.
Despite this, there’s only one halal restaurant in the area, information which can be acted upon to increase overseas spend in Japan.
Oddly, there seems to be a lack of a link between Muslim travelers and digital natives, especially seeing the rise of independent travel.
“We see around 60 to 70 percent of our six million-strong audience perusing our site through mobile,” Goh said.
“This shows efforts to promote Muslim-friendly initiatives should be concentrated in online publications and [online] influencers.”
On top of that, government and tourism boards can work with national airlines to promote Muslim travel, as for most Muslims, airplanes are their first point of contact with a foreign city.
Halal meals in the air
As many airlines are more aware of providing Muslim-friendly services and facilities, Japan Airlines is jumping on the bandwagon.
Japan Airlines has been offering halal-certified Muslim meals on all outbound international flights from Japan, starting June 1, 2016,” Japan Airlines’ Asia & Oceania region vice-president of marketing strategy Akira Mitsumasu told Travel Wire Asia.
“The halal certification was issued by Japan Islamic Trust. The whole process of making outbound Muslim meals follows Islamic laws and rules.”
The halal meal options are available across all seat categories and passengers can choose between Japanese and Western set menus.
Prior to introducing halal-certified meals, the airline was dishing out pork-free meals. However, Mitsumasu noticed only some Muslims were inclined to eat meals that were not halal-certified, prompting the certification process.
“We wish more of our Muslim customers can enjoy our in-flight meal with peace of mind and security,” he said.
Japan Airlines is in the company of the likes of Malaysia Airlines, Sri Lankan Airlines, Singapore Airlines, Air India, Garuda Indonesia, Emirates, and Etihad, which already provide the service.
According to CrescentRating, it’s important for airports, too, to provide prayer rooms, ablution facilities, and halal restaurants in both public and transit areas, and Japanese airports are stepping up their game. All four major international airports in Japan are equipped with prayer rooms, as do some domestic airports.