Thailand Attracts Halal Tourists from the Middle East
Thailand is embracing halal tourism new initiatives to entice Muslims. Al Meroz hotel in Bangkok is the country’s first halal hotel, with segregated swimming pools to jelly made from seaweed. The 5-star hotel has hosted dozens of marriages.(AFP)
From hotels with segregated swimming pools to jelly made from seaweed, Buddhist Thailand is chasing halal gold as it welcomes Muslim visitors and touts its wares to the Islamic world.
Inside the cavernous dining hall of the five-star Al Meroz hotel in a Muslim suburb of Bangkok, an elderly man with a wispy beard recites verses of the Quran as a nervous-looking groom awaits the arrival of his bride.
The ceremony is one of dozens of marriages held over the last few months at the Al Meroz - the city's first entirely halal hotel.
Thailand has long been a draw for the world's sun-seekers, drawn to its parties and tropical beaches.
But it has also seen a huge influx of visitors from Muslim countries, part of a quiet but deliberate strategy by the Southeast Asian nation to diversify its visitor profile.
"Considering there are 1.5 billion Muslims around the world, I think this is a very good market," explains Sanya Saenboon, the general manager of the hotel, one of a growing number of businesses serving a boom in Islamic tourists.
The hotel opened its doors last year, setting itself apart with its attention to all things Islamic.
For a start there is no alcohol on sale, while the top floor swimming pool and gym has specific times for when men and women can use the facilities.
Everything in the building has been ticked off against stringent checklist for practicing Muslims, from bed linen washed in a particular way, to ensuring toiletries are free of animal fat - making everyday goods "permissible" for the faithful.
Sanya, who is Muslim, says such checks give visitors "peace of mind" so clients never have to ask themselves "can I eat this?"
Despite a decade of political turbulence, Thailand has seen an explosion in tourist arrivals, from 13.8 million annual visitors in 2006 to a record 32.5 million last year.
An AFP analysis of government figures shows visitors from key majority Muslim nations in the Middle East and Asia have risen from 2.63 million in 2006 to 6.03 million last year.