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(Yonhap Feature) S. Korea eyes Muslims for tourism growth

All News 09:00 July 15, 2016

By Kim Eun-jung

SEOUL, July 15 (Yonhap) -- Rika Lim is a big fan of South Korean actor Lee Min-ho after watching a 2009 television series "Boys over Flowers," and planned a "girls' weekend trip" to Seoul.

The 23-year-old college student from Indonesia said she had so much fun touring cosmetic stores and character shops in Myeongdong and hanging out in Dongdaemun market, a sleepless fashion mecca, at night.

With easy access to free Wifi and subway lines linked to popular sightseeing areas, Lim and her three friends hung out in hipster areas and at drama filming sites on their own without much problem.

The most challenging part for the Muslim travelers, however, was finding restaurants serving halal food, which refers to foods prepared in a specific way according to Islamic Shariah law.

On the first day of their four-day trip, they went to Itaewon, a foreigner-heavy district that has several halal restaurants near the nation's largest mosque. They had Korean beef for lunch and stayed long enough to have dinner in the area. But for their next several meals, they ate Indonesian snacks and fruits they bought from street vendors.

"I love dumplings and saw several dumpling places. But I didn't try them because I heard most Korean dumplings are made with pork," said Lim, wearing a black hijab and skinny jeans. "Finding places where we can comfortably eat food near tourist attractions was certainly not easy."

Lim is just one of a growing number of Muslims from Southeast Asia and the Middle East who are visiting South Korea for vacation, business or medical treatment, finding difficulties complying with their religious faith.

The number of Muslim tourists has risen from 540,000 in 2012 to 750,000 in 2014, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said, expecting the number to rise to 800,000 this year.

Popular Korean dramas and show programs have stirred more interest in South Korea, but the country where a mere 0.2 percent believes in the religion falls far short of providing amenities and tourism options for Muslims.

The biggest hurdle is food, with only a dozen restaurants being officially certified by the Korea Muslim Federation as halal restaurants.

Some Arabic and Turkish kebab houses have halal signs outside, but they are not officially certified, while "Muslim-friendly restaurants" introduced by the state-run Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) mostly do not serve pork and offer vegetarian dishes. Plus, most of them are located in the Seoul metropolitan area, leaving scarce dining options to those who visit other parts of the country.

Industry officials attribute the lack of dining options for Muslims to low public awareness of the religion and difficulties in getting halal ingredients from local contractors.

"The most difficult part is to get halal ingredients for Korean menus, such as barbecued beef and chicken soup," said Oh Seung-eon, who operates the Makan Korean Halal Restaurant in Itaewon. "We use halal beef certified in Australia and buy chickens from a poultry farm run by a Muslim we've known for years. We make all our sauces with certified ingredients, which takes a lot of time and effort."

Oh said most of his customers are travelers from Southeast Asian nations and the Middle East, with some locals in the neighborhood eating at the place.

"The perception about halal foods has growingly changed as the government has promoted the halal business in recent years, but many Muslim tourists say they grapple with limited menus and locations during their stay here," said Oh, who majored in Arabic and had worked at a trading company before opening the restaurant in early 2015.

For Muslims who pray five times a day toward Mecca, finding the right place to do their religious ritual is another mission. Before praying, they have to wash their face, hands and feet to clean themselves.

"Sometimes, we have no other options but to just wash our hands. It is hard to find a place to clean our feet and face in public places," Lim said. "I can put up with this situation only because I'm staying here temporarily."

In light of growing calls for better infrastructure for Muslim travelers, the government last week announced a series of measures to expand halal food options and prayer rooms in major public facilities, including airports, hotels and convention centers. There are 32 prayer rooms in hotels nationwide.

The tourism ministry plans to publish a recipe book on how to make Korean traditional cuisine in accordance with the Islamic law and develop halal menus for local hospitals that have seen more patients from Middle Eastern nations.

According to a survey by the Korea Health Industry Development Institute, Muslim patients who visited South Korea last year gave local hospitals' halal food the lowest score among seven nonmedical services, due mainly to inconvenience when eating and a limited menu.

In addition to food, the government also said it will form a consortium with cosmetic companies and academic circles to develop ingredients that do not contain any materials banned in Islam, such as collagen extracted from pigs and alcohol-containing glycerin.

Although Korean cosmetics have enjoyed popularity in the Muslim world, only four companies have received official halal certifications overseas.

"There are pork derivatives and alcohol in most cosmetics products, so Muslims should really use something else. While the perception of halal cosmetics is not yet widespread, more cosmetic companies are seeking ways to get halal certifications to target the emerging market," said Cho Min-haeng, an overseas marketing director of Talent Cosmetic Co., a local cosmetic brand certified by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, or Jakim for short.

To boost tourism as a way of jacking up the stagnant consumption in Asia's fourth-largest economy, the government is also considering easing visa regulations for tourists from Middle Eastern countries that don't have terrorist ties.

But most importantly, tourism officials stress hospitality and openness to their religious faith to attract Muslims and make them revisit in the coming years.

"There's much room for growth in the Muslim inbound tourism market if the government and industry cooperate in many areas to improve their convenience," said Jung Ki-Jung, a senior KTO official. "The real obstacle is the persistent prejudice against Muslims, especially from the Christian community. It will not just go away, but apart from that, we will continue to make efforts to give wider options to Muslim tourists."


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