Originally aired on Channel NewsAsia on November 21, 2017
Muslim-friendly hotels and mall prayer rooms pop up in Thailand as the Buddhist-majority country vies for a slice of the growing halal tourism market.
At first sight this street could be in Damascus or Beirut, but this busy alley is actually in the heart of Bangkok: Soi Nana 3 is a hub of the local Muslim community and another place in the capital that could see more visitors in the near future.
SAKSITH SAIYASOMBUT; Bangkok, Thailand:
"A record 32 million tourists visited Thailand in 2016 and that number is likely to go up this year. While the majority of visitors still come from China, there’s an emerging group that the tourism industry is trying to woo to come here: Muslim tourists from South-East Asia and the middle east. Many businesses are already gearing up to welcome these guests."
Thailand's tourism authority says 5 million tourists from Muslim majority countries visited Thailand in 2016, with the majority coming from Indonesia, Malaysia and the United Arab Emirates.
Market research agency for halal travel destinations, Crescent Rating, says the halal tourist market is one of the world's fastest growing, thanks to the growth of budget flights and a booming Muslim middle class.
And Thailand’s tourism industry was able to catch the trend early, says the managing director of a publication on Muslim-run businesses in Thailand.
EKKARAT MUKEM; Managing Director "The Alami" Magazine:
"I believe that business owners have increasingly seen the potential, the purchase power, the opportunities in muslim tourists. So the trend for halal tourism has been steadily going up and up in the past 4-5 years."
Some big malls in Bangkok already provide halal-only food options and dedicated prayer rooms for their Muslim customers.
But it's the hotels in this mainly Buddhist country that have taken the lead in providing halal facilities and services.
Located a little off the city center in Bangkok, the Al Meroz is the first Muslim-friendly hotel in the capital.
Its general manager says running a halal hotel goes beyond more than not serving alcohol and pork.
SANYA SAENGBOON, General Manager Al Meroz Hotel:
"Because halal is not just H-A-L-A-L, you know, it’s something to do more than just a word saying that. Because- who supplies the food for us? How [do] they grow [it]? How [did] the animal got slaughtered?"
All the rooms in the Al Meroz are designed for its Muslim guests - a prayer rug, prayer timetables and also an indicator pointing towards Mecca, Islam's holiest city.
There's also a Qur’an at the bedside table.
The focus on the Muslim tourist has surprised some, with Thailand a pre-dominantly Buddhist country. But the travel industry as a whole is trying to cash in on that trend and standards for halal tourism in Thailand are being considered.
ITTIRIT KINGLEK; Tourism Council of Thailand:
"The committee from the tourism ministry has not set any guidelines for halal and muslim-friendly tourism. The ministry is currently coming up with a muslim-friendly tourism strategy by getting scholars on board in order to identify our (industry’s) strengths and weaknesses and our capabilities to welcome these tourists."
With up to six million Muslim tourists expected to arrive each year, the Land of Smiles wants to be sure it's ready to give its visitors a happy experience.
Saksith Saiyasombut, Channel NewsAsia, Bangkok