It used to be that if you were a Muslim travelling to South Korea, you would have difficulty finding food that is halal or pork-free, or even a mosque or surau to pray at. That’s no longer the case now.
“There are currently about 130 Muslim-friendly restaurants, including 14 halal-certified ones, in South Korea and the figure is expected to grow,” Korea Tourism Organization president Jung Chang Soo said at a recent press conference in Kuala Lumpur.
“We have also produced a restaurant guidebook which offers Muslim-friendly cuisine under four categories: Halal certified (by Korea Muslim Federation); self-certified (all food is halal and certified by Muslim restaurant owners); Muslim-friendly (in places where some halal dishes are provided but alcohol is sold); and pork-free,” he explained.
He added that about 150 companies in South Korea have received halal certification for their food products, as well as a cosmetic company whose products are manufactured in South Korea.
There is also an increase in the number of halal marts in the country. The halal certification is provided by the Korea Muslim Federation, which has synchronised its requirements with those of Malaysia.
“We have 15 mosques in South Korea, including the Seoul Central Mosque, and 40 prayer rooms at popular tourist attractions like Nami Island, Lotte World and Coex Mall; at Incheon International Airport in Seoul, and most recently, at Gimhae International Airport in Busan; and the K-Style Hub tourist information centre in Seoul. The number is expected to increase, too,” he added.
According to Jung, the number of Muslim tourists to South Korea last year was 900,000 (out of the 12 million total foreign visitors), compared to 750,000 in 2014, and it has been increasing steadily at an average of 20% each year. This figure is estimated to increase by 40% this year to 1.2 million.
“To make it more convenient for Muslim travellers to Korea, we have also developed the Halal Korea app. This free app, which is in the English language, helps Muslim travellers to locate nearby halal and vegetarian restaurants, determine prayer times, the nearest mosques, and the direction of the Kaaba according to their current location. It can even scan barcodes in supermarkets to see if the products are halal-certified or not,” he said.
Speaking on tourist arrivals in Korea, Korea Tourism Organization managing director Peter Park Chul–Hyun said that South Korea is becoming one of the hottest travel destinations for Muslims.
“Muslims love Korea, and South Korea was the most popular destination for Muslims in 2014 and 2015. In terms of foreign visitor arrivals, Malaysia ranks eighth (China is first), but in terms of Muslim tourist arrivals, it ranks first,” he said.
According to Park, it’s not surprising that Muslim tourists are leading the growth of Malaysian arrivals to the country, with Hallyu being one of the major influencers for Muslim female travellers aged between 25 and 29.
“The worldwide success of Korean TV shows like Winter Sonata, My Love From The Star and Descendants Of The Sun, helps to drive international tourism, including Muslim visitors, as fans love to visit the filming locations in Korea. There are even Muslim TV programmes and dramas like Astro Ria’s Romantika, and Aku Bukan Bimbo, and Rapi Films (from Indonesia)’s Jilbab Traveller: Love Sparks In Korea, that are filmed in Korea,” he explained.
“Korea Tourism Organization is organising Muslim-friendly events and creating educational programmes for Koreans about halal food and the needs of Muslim visitors. From Nov 1 to Dec 10, Muslim-friendly restaurants throughout South Korea will be offering special promotions such as discounts and free gifts to promote halal tourism,” he added.
According to Park, the preferred way of travel in South Korea for both Muslims and non-Muslims is free-and-easy, but there is still great demand for full-board tour packages.