Friends in Hawaii’s visitor industry have been talking about what it would take to attract Muslim tourists
to Hawaii. I’m sure we get some now, but it certainly isn’t an overwhelming presence. The major Muslim populations of the world are not areas into which the Hawaii Tourism Authority (HTA) has sunk any of its marketing budget, and I assume our present Muslim visitors find their own way here. That is unfortunate because the Muslim market worldwide is simply huge and the Aloha Spirit would mesh easily with many strains of Islam.
It is hard to know how big the Muslim market is because official visitor statistics are neither collected nor published by one’s religion. The U.S. Department of Commerce forecasts a 34% rise in visitors to the United States from the Middle East between 2009 and 2014. But those visitors aren’t all Muslim, nor does this forecast pick up the many Muslim travelers from, say, Indonesia, Malaysia or – increasingly – Europe. We can’t know how large the potential market might be. We just know it is there and it is big. And we know that Hawaii doesn’t seem to realize the Muslim market exists. If you have followed my tourism diatribes, you will be aware that HTA spends no marketing funds in the Middle East, south Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, and not much in Europe. That lets out most of the world’s Muslims. But is Hawaii even ready for a Muslim marketing campaign? Probably not.
Islamic decor at Honolulu's Doris Duke Mansion
The least troublesome aspects include things like installing signage in hotel rooms so that Muslims know the direction to Mecca – usually a small unobtrusive arrow on the ceiling that non-Muslims may not even notice. These arrows are ubiquitous in S.E. Asia. I’ve seen them in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India, China, Taiwan, Indonesia, even some hotels in Europe. And for many Muslims, of the less devout variety, that is about all you need to do. The devout Muslim market, however, is a whole different matter.
One friend points out that, though Honolulu has a mosque in Manoa Valley, attracting Muslim visitors in significant numbers will require prayer rooms in hotels or malls. This also requires hotel staff knowledgeable and sensitive about Islam’s requirements. I’m not sure we should put the Muslim prayer room right next to the tourist wedding chapel.
Food is a major issue. Devout Muslims must have access to halal foods. This is not just a matter of offering halal dishes on a menu, but necessitates entirely halal restaurants as I understand it. To my surprise, Honolulu has four halal restaurants (one, intriguingly, is a pizzeria) and a Muslim visitor with kitchen facilities can buy halal meats at Costco (not sure how many visitors from Pakistan have their Costco memberships). There are Costcos on the Big Island, Maui and Kauai, but apparently no halal restaurants. Traditional luaus are probably out of the question for the devout Muslim. Based on their locations, I would guess that the halal restaurants of Honolulu are targeted at our local Muslim community rather than visitors.
Hong Kong is wrestling with the halal issue. They have seen a significant increase in Muslim visitors and, though the city already has 63 halal restaurants, the Hong Kong Tourism Board wants more. Of course, Hong Kong has at least 220,000 Muslim residents, so there is less of a risk to setting one up than in Hawaii. Despite this, the Tourism Board has encountered resistance from the big chains when they have been approached about establishing halal kitchens. McDonalds has reportedly refused, arguing that Hong Kong is not a Muslim country, ignoring the fact that McDonalds has hundreds of halal stores in Muslim countries and presumably knows how to do it. Hong Kong’s Disneyland has also refused. Hong Kong’s food processing industry, however, is responding by producing products to halal specifications. They don’t sell much of it at home, but they have seen their exports to Muslim markets go up. Perhaps Hawaii needs halal-certified macadamia nuts or papayas to get things started.
One thing Hawaii has gotten right was establishing September 24 as Islam Day to encourage local knowledge and understanding of Islam. Our first Islam Day was held last fall and was a modest success. The center piece was a festival at Ala Moana beach park.