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Japan sees big potential in Muslim tourists

More than 130,000 Malaysians visited Japan last year, up nearly 14 per cent from the peak year of 2010

By Mutsuko Murakami / 5 Mar 2013

More travel agencies are going all out to ensure Muslims have a comfortable stay in their country

JAPAN has suffered a traumatic decrease of Chinese tourists since the third quarter of last year, primarily because of Sino-Japan territorial frictions.

Filling the void are the new waves of tourists, notably from Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries.

The number of Chinese tourists dropped 33 per cent during October, for example, but Malaysian tourists rose 66 per cent and Indonesians 40 per cent, compared with the same month the previous year.

The new trend is driving Japanese enthusiasm in preparing to welcome Muslim visitors so that they can stay more comfortably in accordance with their religious requirements.

More than 130,000 Malaysians visited Japan last year, up nearly 14 per cent from the peak year of 2010, because of the growing Malaysian middle class that can afford to travel abroad and launch of low-cost carriers.

These tourists include increasing Malay Muslims, who previously found it hard to keep their religious practices in Japan.

The Muslim population in Japan is between 50,000 and 100,000, most of them followers from overseas. There are only fewer than 1,000 Japanese Muslims, it is said, in a country of 120 million people.

Allah’s teachings are unfamiliar to most of the Japanese. The new clientele in tourism is quickly educating Japanese travel business about Muslims.

“A major challenge was to ensure space for worship and halal food for them,”says Kazunari Kurosawa of Miyako Kokusai Co. Over the past few years, the travel agency in Osaka has developed environments for Asian Muslim visitors.

He studied about halal food and visited restaurants, accompanied by Japan Halal Association officials, approved by Malaysia’s Jakim (Department of Islamic Advancement of Malaysia), to make sure they served non-alcoholic, pork-free food.

He arranged that Muslim visitors always used new disposable spoons, cups and other utensils taken directly to their mouths so that they are free from cleaning alcohol commonly used in Japan.

He also secured space for musalla in shrines and other tourist spots and announced to his customers the kiblat (direction of the Qaaba)

Kurosawa has since served about 500 Muslim tourists from Malaysia and his spring tours for cherry blossom viewing are fully booked.

Many Southeast Asian tourists would also head for the northern parts of Japan to see snow-covered Japan and enjoy skiing and other “snow experiences” during winter.

Hokkaido, the northernmost island, lately enjoyed an increasing number of Southeast Asian visitors, including Muslims.

In an unsurprising consequence, Chitose Outlet Mall Rera in Sapporo has installed a prayer room so that Muslims can shop for many hours without worrying about a place for prayers.

In October, the Japan Halal Business Association was founded in Tokyo for promoting halal-related business and market by educating businessmen about the traditions and halal requirements through publications, seminars and campaigns.

They invited former Malaysian prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as keynote speaker at the halal forum in November.

The Japanese government is also learning quickly about the potential of the faith-based tourism.

The Japan National Tourism Organisation, the government tourism-promoting arm, plans to create an official halal guidebook for Muslim tourists, listing restaurants and worship places in Japan.

It hopes to increase the number of Southeast Asian tourists to one million, double the number of 2011.

The organisation, in January signed a memorandum with the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents to promote inbound Malaysian tourists.

Also, last month, it held the Japan-Muslim tourism seminar for Japanese businesses interested in promoting inbound Asian Muslim tourists.

Inbound tourists to Japan rose to 8.37 million last year, recovering from the drop in the disaster-tainted previous year but lagging behind the year’s goal of nine million.

“It is not a satisfactory situation yet,”said Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Minister Akihiro Ohta.

Setting a new yearly goal at 10 million for this year, he pledged to promote tourism by all means of all divisions of his ministry, obviously setting a big target for Muslim visitors from Asia and other parts of the world.


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