Sabah and Sarawak are preparing tourism stakeholders for an upswing in the Muslim travel market. The two states in Malaysian Borneo are working with the Islamic Tourism Centre (ITC), an entity under the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, and Culture tasked with developing the Islamic tourism segment.
The Global Muslim Travel Index 2022 forecasts that Muslim traveler arrivals will get back to the pre-pandemic 2019 level of 160 million by 2024 after plunging below 50 million in 2020 and halving further in 2021. The global Muslim travel market is estimated at $190 billion. The index is produced by Mastercard and Singapore-based Muslim travel consultancy CrescentRating.
While international travel has reopened, the recovery “is fragile and could be disrupted by the continuing war in Ukraine, fuel price increases, and other health threats such as the emerging monkeypox or COVID-19 variants,” the report noted. As such, it forecast that the pre-pandemic projection of 230 million arrivals by 2026 can be reached only in 2028, with tourist spending estimated at $225 billion.
The report also identified emerging trends in the market. About 70% of the estimated two billion Muslims in the world are under 40 years with Gen Z and millennials representing 50% of the population. Women travelers are a fast-growing segment in the market; they make up around 45% of global Muslim arrivals.
Making destinations Muslim-friendly
According to the index, Malaysia bested other countries in terms of preparedness in catering to Muslim travelers, followed by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Indonesia, which share the second-place ranking. The score is based on ease of access to the destination, internal and external communication, environment, and services.
Since reopening its borders to international visitors on 1 April this year, Malaysia has welcomed 400,186 Muslim tourists, says ITC in September. These tourists contributed about 18%, or RM1.15 billion (more than $260 million) to the country’s tourism receipts.
To cater to Muslim tourists, destinations would need to meet requirements in terms of providing halal food as well as support facilities for prayers and other services.
In September, ITC organized a seminar in Sarawak to educate Islamic tourism stakeholders about the growing market and potential opportunities.
“Islamic tourism opens more doors of opportunity for the people of Sarawak to generate income through the tourism industry,” said Minister of Tourism, Arts and Culture, YB Dato Sri Hajah Nancy Haji Shukri during the seminar.
“Tourism product operators and the rakyat [people] of Sarawak should grab the opportunities available in Muslim-friendly tourism and hospitality space and leverage on the state’s natural and cultural gems, local customs, heritage cuisines and handicrafts to attract the Muslim tourist market,” she said.
She said Sarawak can promote its mosques and homestays with indigenous groups to showcase the ways of life and cross-cultural values of the state’s multi-ethnic groups. Other attractions include the Sultan Tengah Mausoleum in Santubong, which is an example of a destination that carries strong Islamic tourism history, as well as the prehistoric archaeological sites at Tanjung Kubor and Sungai Jaong.
Seven hotels across Sarawak have been recognized by ITC as Muslim-friendly accommodations. These are Pullman Kuching, Pullman Miri Waterfront, Hilton Kuching, The Waterfront Hotel Kuching, Grand Margherita Hotel, Riverside Majestic Hotel (Puteri Wing), and Riverside Majestic Hotel (Astana Wing).
In November, ITC co-organized a seminar on “Muslim-friendly Tourism and Hospitality” with the Sabah Tourism Board.
“The seminar is an informative platform because it would help our tourism industry players in Sabah to better understand the significance of the Muslim tourist market, the basic requirements and needs of Muslim tourists, and how their products or destination could become more Muslim-friendly,” said Tay Shu Lan, Sabah Tourism Board’s deputy chief executive officer of marketing
Fitra Mohd Ali, ITC industry development director and manager, said Sabah has the potential to grow as a Muslim-friendly destination and should seize the opportunity to create products that meet the required standards. He said the Kota Kinabalu state mosque, halal food, and the state’s Muslim-friendly spas and healthcare offerings would appeal to the target market.
During the seminar, participants were introduced to the tourism center’s Muslim-friendly tourism and hospitality certification programs, including schemes that recognize Muslim-friendly accommodations, tourism products, hospitality, and packages.
Growing competition in the region
Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia, and the Philippines are also vying to get a bigger share of the Muslim travel market.
Indonesia already has diverse halal destinations, having the largest Muslim population in the world. South Sulawesi—including Makassar and surrounding areas—is among the most equipped for Muslim travelers, says a 2019 report from Mastercard and CrescentRating. Other top destinations are Lombok (West Nusa Tenggara), Aceh, Riau and Riau Islands, Jakarta, West Sumatra, West Java, Yogyakarta, Central Java, East Java (Malang Area).
Indonesia Minister of Tourism and Creative Economy Sandiaga Salahuddin Uno in a forum last year said the country has the potential to become a major destination for Muslim tourists. He said the ministry will develop Indonesia’s halal tourism potential in terms of regulations, human resources, attractions, and supporting facilities.
More recently, travel industry site TTG Asia reported that the Indonesia Halal Tourism Association has tied up with CrescentRating to launch strategic initiatives to attract Muslim travelers. These include helping industry players build resilience, improving the Muslim-friendly tourism ecosystem in the country, marketing development, and using big data. Efforts are also in place to develop rating and accreditation services for the industry, destination ranking, awards, industry training, as well as roundtable discussions.
Brunei Darussalam is also a top destination for Islamic tourism with iconic mosques, such as the Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien mosque in Bandar Seri Begawan. The country has maintained its 12th spot in the Global Muslim Travel Index 2022.
Mindanao in the Philippines has a large Muslim population and facilities and services that cater to Muslim travelers. Initiatives to develop the Muslim tourism market include promoting the halal culinary heritage of Mindanao and the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and related destinations.