Taiwan turns up charm to woo Muslim travellers

Visa-free entry, more halal outlets among efforts to cushion drop in number of mainland tourists

Tourists and locals gathering together to celebrate Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival in Taipei as Taiwan goes the extra mile to attract Muslims to boost tourist numbers. PHOTO: TAIWAN TOURISM BUREAU SINGAPORE OFFICE

Taiwan is going the extra mile to woo Muslim travellers from South-east Asia and the Middle East to boost tourist arrivals even as the number of mainland Chinese tourists, two-fifths of arrivals, is expected to fall.

Besides waiving visa requirements, the island is also planning prayer rooms in hotels and more halal restaurants, among other things, to cater to Muslim practices.

The island's tourism authorities are also fanning out across the region to sell Taiwan as an attractive destination for Muslims.

Taipei city's tourism department has launched a new marketing campaign in Kuala Lumpur, which includes linking up with Muslim tour agencies in the Malaysian capital.

Ads have also been spotted in Singapore's Berita Harian promoting Taipei to Muslim travellers.

"We want to spread the message that although Taiwan is predominantly a Chinese-speaking society, it is also a place where Muslim travellers will have fun and be very comfortable in... where their practices and habits will not be disrupted," Taipei's tourism development division chief Cherry Chueh Yu-ling told The Straits Times.

Taiwan's tourism industry, with a total of 10.4 million arrivals annually, makes up nearly 4 per cent of the island's gross domestic product. The bulk of tourists come from mainland China but that source is set to dry up, with Beijing expected to cut the cross-strait travel quota to put pressure on the government of President Tsai Ing-wen and her independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party.

Taiwan welcomed 180,000 Muslim travellers in 2014 and hopes to nearly double that number by 2018 to help cushion the fall.

This is as Muslim travel becomes one of the world's fastest-growing tourism sectors. The number of Muslim international travellers is predicted to rise to 168 million in 2020 from the 117 million last year, according to the Global Muslim Travel Index 2016 published by financial services firm MasterCard and Muslim travel consultancy CrescentRating. Muslim travellers are projected to spend US$200 billion (S$271.8 billion) in 2020.

The charm offensive is also part of Ms Tsai's new "Southbound policy" to boost socio-economic ties with Asean and India. To improve access, Taiwan is extending visa-free travel privileges, which currently apply to Singapore and Malaysia, to more Asean countries like Brunei and Thailand. Sources said Indonesia, home to the world's biggest Muslim population, is likely to join the visa-free list in September.

Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je, in the meantime, has pledged to make Taipei "Muslim-friendly".

For instance, the city aims to increase the number of halal restaurants from 36 now to 70 by 2019.

Muslim travellers to the city, noted Ms Chueh, have complained that they are hard-pressed to find halal food and often have to resort to instant noodles. More hotels are also installing prayer rooms and providing the qibla, or the direction to Mecca, in its guest rooms.

These efforts, as well as growing awareness of Taiwan as a holiday destination, are attracting Muslim travellers to Taiwan.

Tour agents The Straits Times spoke to said they have been getting more requests to conduct Muslim free-and-easy tours to the island's attractions, such as hot springs, farm resorts and theme parks.

Middle Eastern airline Emirates, which has carried nearly 450,000 passengers since starting direct flights between Dubai and Taipei in 2014, has also seen more ticket sales. To meet the bigger demand, it started flying the Airbus A-380 jumbo jet, which can seat 40 per cent more passengers than the Boeing 777 plane used previously.

Still, more needs to be done to better cater to the language needs and taste buds of Muslim tourists, said Pro Tour Express marketing manager Ishag Ma. Many Taiwanese prefer to speak Mandarin and have difficulty understanding English, denying Muslim tourists a truly immersive experience, said Mr Ma, 55, who was previously an imam with the Taipei Grand Mosque.

"They may love the scenery and attractions, but without real interaction with the locals, the tourists still feel short-changed because they do not get a good-enough feel of the Taiwanese culture," he said.

He added that many are also not used to the sauces and soupy dishes of Taiwanese cuisine, even if they are halal-certified, and that there is a need to have more eateries serving Middle Eastern cuisine.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline Taiwan turns up charm to woo Muslim travellers. Subscribe