When Rafidah Abd Rahim traveled to Japan from Singapore last year, the recent college graduate was relieved to find a goodly number of lifestyle offerings for Muslim travelers, such as halal food—that is, fare that complies with Islamic dietary guidelines—and easily available prayer rooms.
Rafidah found Sakura House, a Muslim-friendly share house with separate dorms for females and males on different levels, as well as a halal restaurant nearby. And the Tokyo Camii mosque was within walking distance. She also found a variety of eateries serving halal food.
“I was able to broaden my choices,” she says. “Since I was unable to enjoy an authentic ramen [because it sometimes has] pork stock, I was able to enjoy a bowl of the vegetarian version.”
As overall tourism to Japan is on the rise — priority as Tokyo prepares to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games — the country is getting high marks for its efforts at becoming a halal-friendly tourism destination.
Singapore-based Muslim travel authority CrescentRating, identifies countries in Asia that are working hard to attract tourists from fast-growing economies where a growing middle class is traveling to non-Muslim destinations.
“Countries like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea are really targeting the Southeast Asian market for tourism,” says Fazal Bahardeen, CrescentRating’s founder and CEO.
Japan is at the top of that list of countries boosting its hospitality to the Muslim consumer and lifestyle market, Bahardeen adds.
The number of Muslim travelers to Japan is projected to more than triple by 2020. In 2013, an estimated 300,000 Muslim tourists visited Japan. This figure could reach one million by 2020. According to CrescentRating, from 2004 to 2013, the number of Muslim visitors grew at an average rate of 7.2 percent year on year. The highest growth rate was 47 percent in 2012, followed by 29 percent in 2013.
The next seven-year average annual growth rate is projected to be 18.7 percent, leading to an expected one million visitor arrivals in 2020.
Southeast Asia will remain the key source market for Japan, accounting for 65–70 percent of the total number of Muslim visitors. In 2013, the top three source markets were Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
Bahardeen attributes this to increasing efforts by the Japanese travel industry to cater to the needs of Muslim travelers, in addition to Japan opening up visa-free travel for Indonesians, Malaysians, and others members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a regional organization—with 10 member states and two countries with observer status—set up to promote cultural, economic, and political development in the region.
“Even at one million visitors, it will only represent around 5 percent of total visitors to Japan. Globally, the Muslim travel market will represent around 13.5 percent in 2020. As such, Japan still has huge potential to capture more visitors from this travel segment,” Bahardeen says.
Both the private sector and the government are making efforts to develop the sector. More and more cities across Japan are developing services and facilities to attract the segment. That is in keeping with a larger trend. CrescentRating’s research finds that non-Muslim destinations are growing fast for Muslim holidaymakers.
A rising consumer class from fast-growing economies such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is fueling the demand for Muslim-friendly products and services across businesses sectors in Asia and around the world.
The CrescentRating survey portrays the typical Muslim consumer as young, educated, and with a larger disposable income, which has precipitated an increased propensity to travel. This means travel and hospitality, and its various sub-sectors, is now one of the biggest markets within the Muslim consumer market.
Japan’s push to attract the Muslim tourism market is creating business opportunities. TFK Corporation, an airline caterer in Tokyo, is one example of how the travel industry is paying more attention to the growing Muslim market: Last fall, the company acquired certification for its halal kitchen, which prepares in-flight meals.
The company reportedly spent some ¥60 million to expand its Narita International Airport premises and purchase new equipment to meet the growing demand for halal food.
Other examples abound. Signs that declare “halal-certified” can be found in eateries and dining halls. Hijabs made from local silk can be found in Japanese stores.
For shoppers at its branch in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, the department store Takashimaya has a prayer room that is equipped with a facility for ritual washing and an arrow pointing in the direction of Mecca, the holiest city in the Islamic faith. Fukuoka City, moreover, contracted a consultant regarding how to become more halal friendly. By tapping into the growing Muslim tourist market, Japan hopes to diversify a tourism industry that has been long dependent on Chinese, Taiwanese, and South Korean tourists.
In May 2014, the global market for halal products and other services — including food, cosmetics, travel and tourism, financial products such as Shariah-compliant bank cards — was estimated to be $1.62 trillion, and is expected to reach $2.47 trillion by 2018, according to growth strategy and research advisory DinarStandard and Thomson Reuters.
Credit card giants MasterCard and Visa are vying for a piece of the action, offering Shariah-compliant, interest-free debit cards (Shariah-compliant financial products are prohibited from charging interest).
Financial markets outside the Islamic world including the UK, Hong Kong and Japan are encouraging investment and savings products compliant with Shariah principles such as sukuk, the Islamic equivalent of bonds.
Japan itself is home to some 100,000 Muslims, of whom 10 percent are native Japanese while the rest are foreign residents of Japan, according to CrescentRating.
Indeed, the modern history of Islam in Japan dates back to the late 19th century, when contact was made with Indonesians who served on British and Dutch ships that docked off the Japanese coast.
Later, in the 1870s, a translation into Japanese of the life of Prophet Muhammad greatly helped Islam spread across the country.
The world’s Muslim population of 1.6 billion is growing at twice the rate of the global average, and is expected to become 26.5 percent of the world’s population by 2030, according to the Pew Research Center.
Given those numbers, the Japan Halal Association is pushing halal-friendliness as a good business strategy. “The halal industry does not benefit only Muslims,” the association says on its website.
Bilal Atalay, a spokesman for the Tokyo Camii and Turkish Culture Center, saw a marked increase in Muslim tourists following Japan’s changing of visa regulations for some ASEAN member states such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Atalay says the sector is still growing, with halal certification organizations and businesses racing to meet demand.
A combination of halal-friendly products and services and "omotenashi" (traditional Japanese hospitality), he says, is beginning to emerge, offering exciting culinary and other options to a new wave of visitors to Japan.
Tom Benner is a Singapore-based journalist writing for Al Jazeera English and Nikkei Asian Review, among other outlets.© Japan Today