South Korea hopes to attract more Muslim tourists

SHAFAQNA – As the number of travellers from the Middle East and Asian Muslim countries increases, the South Korean government wants more Muslim tourists to visit the country. Chinese tourists usually top the list of foreign visitors to South Korea, but the country has seen a rise in Muslim tourists from the Middle East in recent years. Tourists from Asian Muslim countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia were also among the top 10 visitors in 2014. South Korea attracted about 14 million foreign tourists in 2014, and the government wants to increase that figure to 20 million by 2017 by appealing to Muslim tourists.

As the backdrop to one of the country’s most famous and globally successful drama series, Winter Sonata, Nami Island receives about three million tourists, from home and abroad. Out of these, about one million of them are foreigners. To attract more tourists, Nami Island has made changes to accommodate the needs of Muslims. New provisions include prayer rooms with a compass in each room. Nami Island also houses one of the only five halal-certified restaurants in South Korea.

“In the case of Nami Island, we run this halal restaurant and that’s why tourism agencies bear this in mind when plan their itineraries,” said executive director of Nami Island Minn Kyung-hyuk. “And that’s why there’s been a huge increase in Muslim tourists compared to before.”

The government is hoping these efforts will attract more Muslim visitors to the country. According to the official Korea Tourism Organisation, there were about 750,000 Muslim tourists to South Korea in 2014 – accounting for 5.3 per cent of the total foreign travellers to the country.

“We were looking for new markets and decided to focus on Muslims. That’s because not only do they travel a lot but they are also big spenders,” said Chung Gi-jung, head of the Asia-Middle East region of the Korean Tourist Organisation. “We thought they could have a big economic impact on the Korean economy.”

But some experts say the government should also make efforts to get Koreans to change their perception of Muslims, and not just focus on the numbers.

“As long as there is prejudice and oppression against the Muslims in the country and the Islamphobic terrorist image is prevalent for Muslims in the country, the halal market or the expansion into the Middle East market is bound to have limits,” said a professor of Middle East and Islamic World at Hanyang University, Lee Hee-soo.

Currently there are about 135,000 Muslims living in South Korea.

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