Pei-Yu Wu first learned what halal meant while hosting delegates from Southeast Asia for the Ministry of Foreign of Affairs in Taiwan. Growing up in Taiwan where less than 2 percent of the population is Muslim, she wasn’t familiar with Islamic customs. She took her guests to a night market and accidentally bought them cong zhua bing, a popular street food that, she found out too late, was cooked with pork grease. She was so embarrassed by her halal faux pas that she decided to open her own travel agency, Halal Trip Guru, to make it easier for other Muslim tourists visiting Taiwan.
Wu’s company is part of a growing halal tourism sector in Taiwan, bolstered by a government initiative that’s focused on making the country Muslim-friendly. According to Crescent Rating, a research group that tracks halal travel trends, Taiwan received 80,000 more Muslims in 2018 than the previous year. In neighboring China, home to over 20 million Muslims, Crescent Rating’s CEO Fazal Bahardeen said numbers have remained unchanged, with little to no government investment in halal tourism. “We have not seen any sort of activity from mainland China in terms of targeting this Muslim market,” Bahardeen said.
Muslim tourists make up one of the fastest-growing travel sectors in the world. Crescent Rating estimates that by 2026, there will be 230 million halal tourists travelling worldwide. By 2050, the Pew Research Center estimates Muslims will make up nearly 30 percent of the world’s population. Despite this rapid growth, Bahardeen said halal tourism is a market is still untapped, especially in China. “[Muslims] are still poorly represented in the travel space.”
China is primed to be more connected than ever to the Muslim world through the Belt and Road Initiative, a sweeping infrastructure project that would link China to halal tourism markets including Malaysia, Singapore, and Pakistan. The BRI project plan, which includes a pan-Asian railway line between Yunnan in southwest China and Singapore, is set to restore a once thriving trade network and historical route of religious exchange between China and Southeast Asia.
China’s Islamic history is closely tied to the development of the original Silk Road, a trade network that disseminated the religion across Eurasia; the Hui Muslim minority in China are thought to be the descendants of Arab merchants who traveled to China for trade. Islam spread further into Southeast Asia by way of Muslim traders, creating an organic cultural exchange through travel that was wedded to business in the region.
Despite that breadth of Islamic history, China was not recognized in Crescent Rating’s top 20 Muslim-friendly destinations – something that’s not likely to change with the BRI unless the Chinese government invests in that industry. Vera van de Nieuwenhof, director of cultural outreach at GoKunming, a travel startup in Yunnan’s capital city, said there’s little evidence that business exchange through the BRI will roll over into tourism. GoKunming is working with Yunnan’s Department of Tourism on a project this year to promote foreign tourism, but van de Niuwenhof said it’s a fraction of what the government is spending on promoting tourism domestically. “If we see how little they are in investing in Western tourism, then I can’t see them making similar investments in Muslim tourism,” she said.
China’s few institutional efforts to promote the country’s Muslim history have been largely tied to other business opportunities. In late 2016, the airline Emirates introduced a flight connecting Yinchuan, capital city of Ningxia province, to Dubai, Amman, and Kuala Lumpur. The project coincided with the government’s $3.6 billion plan to construct a World Muslim City with a massive Arab-style mosque as part of a Hui cultural theme park. The project was marketed as a way to link China to the Middle East.
The BRI creates a literal bridge between China and the Arab world but overshadowing much of the proposed BRI plan that would reach into Muslim markets is a growing hostility toward Islam domestically. The Chinese government has cracked down on religious practice in the past few years, destroying mosques in Ningxia province and imprisoning a vast number of Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang.
This has fueled a larger conversation about Islamophobia in China and growing paranoia about how Islam is practiced. In late 2018, state media also reported that Gansu province would get rid of halal labels on certain foods to promote ethnic unity and stop Islam from overshadowing secular life. Leaders in two of the largest halal tourism markets, Malaysia and Indonesia, have openly condemned China’s treatment of Muslims. Bahardeen at Crescent Tourism says these kinds of Islamophobic trends have consequences in the long run for halal travelers.
His company created a scale to measure how friendly receiving countries are toward Islam, which accounts for hate crimes toward Muslims in those places. In a report published in January, Crescent Rating documented how technology helps amplify reports of Islamophobia, which makes Muslims less likely to travel to those places if they feel hostility toward their religion. “They will avoid a destination if they don’t feel welcome,” Bahardeen said.
Yunnan Adventure, a tourism company based in Kunming that markets itself for having halal tourism service, said that’s consistent with their numbers. The company said only 5 percent of their business comes from halal tourists.
Xiaowei Ma, a Hui Muslim tour guide working for Yunnan Adventure in Kunming, said Muslim tourists make up a fraction of his visitors, who mostly come from Japan and the United States. When he does receive Muslim tourists from Malaysia, Ma said they are often unaware of the depth of China’s Islamic history, and the kind of halal amenities they can find there. “They feel very surprised,” he said.
In most cases of growing halal tourism markets — like Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand — market growth is spearheaded by investment in the government. Research from Crescent Rating shows that without this push, halal tourism isn’t likely to occur naturally in China. “The private sector will not put in money if they don’t think the government is keen on driving that sector,” Bahardeen said.
That’s why Taiwan is working overtime to earn a Muslim-friendly title with an initiative by President Tsai Ing-wen introduced in 2016. The plan included updates in Islamic facilities in train stations, airports, and programs that train tour guides on the cultural norms to host Muslim guests. Taiwan also hosts an annual halal expo to help domestic businesses develop their market and promote halal products.
In order to boost halal tourism numbers in Taiwan, the Tourism Bureau is also recruiting popular Indonesian bloggers and Malaysian internet celebrities to help spread the word about Taiwan as a Muslim friendly country. Wu from Halal Trip Guru has based her business model on the idea of cultural exchange, which is how she first became interested in hosting Muslim travelers in Taiwan in the first place. “We want to help make it easy for them,” she said.
Meanwhile, China looks ahead for future business connections in Muslim markets through epicenters like Yunnan, with the proposed train route running the length of the Southeast Asian peninsula scheduled to be completed in 2021. But as far as cultural exchange is concerned, Ma from Yunnan Adventure said there’s no sign yet that the government will refocus any of that investment on Muslim tourism: “Now, it’s not happening,”
Betsy Joles is an independent journalist based in Beijing.