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3 Feb, 2017

UNWTO releases landmark report on contribution of Islamic culture to Asian Tourism


Bangkok – The UN World Tourism Organisation has published a landmark report documenting the impact of Islamic culture and its contribution to Asian Tourism. Funded by the China Chamber of Tourism, the publication shines a light on the rich Islamic tangible and intangible cultural heritage resources throughout the Asia-Pacific and calls for a massive funding campaign to upgrade and preserve these resources. That will help drive tourism, create jobs, help small and medium-sized enterprises and advance the cause of the UN’s Alliance of Civilizations.

The publication is part of the vision of UNWTO Secretary-General Dr Taleb Rifai for tourism to “build bridges between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations and to promote a culture of peace, stability and understanding between peoples.” In line with that over-arching policy, over the last few years, the UNWTO has held numerous conferences in Europe and Asia to promote religious and spiritual tourism. It is also finalising a second study on Buddhist Tourism due for release later this year.

More than two years in the making, the historic report, entitled “Contribution of Islamic Culture and its Impact on the Asian Tourism Market,” was completed and released at an opportune time. Against the backdrop of the huge global controversy raging over the “Muslim-ban” enacted by the Trump Administration, the study will help bolster the efforts by the Islamic world and religious moderates to battle Islamophobia and the doomed-to-fail campaigns by right-wing extremist fanatics to portray Islam as a religion of violence and terror.

The Asia-Pacific was the focal point of the study because it is where the vast majority of the global population of Muslims is located. Hence, it covers Muslim-majority countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Iran, Bangladesh, Brunei Darussalaam and Maldives); other Asian countries with a significant minority Muslim population (India, China, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Philippines); as well as non-Islamic countries interested in the potential market (Australia, Japan and Republic of Korea). Saudi Arabia is featured as a special case study of Asian visitors participating in the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimage.

Dr Taleb Rifai

In a foreword, Dr Rifai notes that the study “originated from a request made by Member States for a better understanding of a particular component of tourism that is expanding very fast but has not been fully explored nor understood. The consequent study strives to shine a light on the rich history and cultural heritage bequeathed to Asia by Islam and the Islamic civilization that has a profound bearing on present-day tourism.”

He adds, “The Islamic cultural impact on the tourism sector has been enormous due to the magnitude of the tangible and intangible cultural assets and diverse population of the region, comprising Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who are now the beneficiaries of this heritage. Travel facilitation and tourism have made this cultural heritage accessible to a greater populace than in the past and will continue to do so in the future.”

Dr Rifai writes, “One of the characteristics of the Asian tourism market is the rapid growth of the middle-class that has come with the financial and social benefits of trade liberalization and globalization. This middle class constitutes the bulk of the Islamic tourism clientele. People now have more leisure time and the disposable income to travel than a few years ago and this is particularly relevant to the countries with Muslim populations. Malaysia and Indonesia are not only inbound markets but they are also proving to be valuable source markets for outbound travel.

“Considered a niche market in the past, the enormous Muslim diaspora of Asia and the Pacific is today a part of mainstream tourism and in that respect countries both within the region, as well as outside it should pay special attention to it.”

The study was conducted under the auspices of Mr. Xu Jing, Director, Regional Programme for Asia and the Pacific, UNWTO, supported by Mr. Omar Nawaz, Project Research Coordinator, Ms. Hyeon-Jin Lee, Programme Assistant, and Ms. Harmony Lamm, Research Coordinator. Mr. Imtiaz Muqbil, Executive Editor, Travel Impact Newswire and Islamic Travel Newswire was the lead editorial consultant. Significantly, the China Chamber of Tourism provided valuable funding support.

The report cites its general objectives thus:

– Better understand the huge potential of the emerging market for Islamic tourism, especially in and out of Asia;

– Build bridges between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations and promote a culture of peace, stability and understanding between peoples; and

– Develop policy recommendations to enhance facilitation, accessibility to and from within the Islamic world including the provision of facilities and services for the development of Islamic tourism resources.

– Draw attention to the contribution of Islamic culture to Asian history and heritage; and

– Highlight Islamic member countries of UNWTO as attractive emerging tourist destinations and help them better tap the potential of intra-Islamic travel.

The contents include an overview of the Islamic world including a brief history of Islam in Asia, and economic and demographic profiles. Individual country monographs outline brief tourism arrivals profile and charts highlighting the importance of travel and tourism in Islamic countries, covering both arrivals and expenditure. It lists iconic sights including monuments and cultural centres of Islamic countries in the wider context of Asia as a geographical entity.

The report notes that amongst the Islamic countries of the Asia-Pacific region, some clear trends stand out:

– The geographical diversity of the region includes landlocked countries such as Afghanistan and sea-locked island archipelagos such as Maldives;

– The income diversity of the region is reflected in countries such as Brunei Darussalaam, which has one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, and Bangladesh, which has one of the lowest;

– All countries promote tourism as part of their economic development strategies. The oil-producing countries, such as Brunei Darussalaam and Iran, are seeking to diversify their economies over the long-term; the non-oil countries such as Bangladesh and Pakistan see tourism as a promising service-sector activity for job-creation and income-generation;

– Visitor arrivals in the OIC countries are polarized between the haves and the have-nots. The vast majority of arrivals are concentrated in Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. In the Asia and the Pacific, this polarization exists between countries such as Bangladesh and Malaysia;

– This diversity is also reflected in the facilitation. The Maldives gives visa-free access to nearly every country in the world, while some others in the region are more restrictive; and

– Indonesia has one of the world’s highest average lengths of stay of 9 to 12 days while Brunei Darussalaam one of the lowest of 2.2 days

These factors contribute to the challenges of meeting the various objectives of promoting travel to, from and within the Islamic world.

The most important part of the report is the Conclusions and Recommendations chapter. This notes that the numerous communiqués, resolutions and declarations of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meetings already contain valuable recommendations for promoting intra-Islamic travel. “Rather than duplicating that guidance, this report is designed to build on that solid foundation and take it to a new level.”

The report says that the existing challenges facing Islamic travel are already well known, such as lack of technical know-how, weak promotional activity, shortages of skilled and well-trained tourism professionals, inadequate publicity and promotional exposure, and insufficient infrastructures necessary for the development of a sustainable tourism sector.

It adds that the solutions to those challenges are also equally well-known such as promoting tourism investments, integrating tourism policy-making and overcoming policy conflicts both between and amongst the public and private sectors; streamlining the administrative, regulatory and institutional frameworks; enhancing tourism safety and security; promoting sustainable tourism; upgrading the quality and efficiency of tourism-related infrastructure and services; and improving facilitation and accessibility.

Hence, the UNWTO report goes one step further by recommending a massive funding campaign for improved restoration and preservation of the many Islamic mosques, gardens, forts, monuments and landmarks in the Asia and the Pacific, many of which are suffering from serious neglect. Issues at these sites include everything from landscaping and interpretation to the quality of toilets.

It says, “Availability of and investment in publicity materials and websites for these sites which, due to the state of disrepair and the lack of publicity, are not popular on the tourist circuit and cannot be financially self-sustaining. In general, governments are reluctant to give them high priority vis-à-vis the other priorities on national budgets.”

To overcome that, the report calls for increased funding from third party sources, such as the Islamic Development Bank. It stresses, “Currently the Bank provides funding for associated sectors, such as transport, infrastructure and education, all of which contribute to travel and tourism, but not directly to the travel and tourism sector. With an increase of support from the Islamic Development Bank, it could send a clear signal to many other sources of Islamic finance, including sukuk and waqf funds and Islamic banks, to follow suit.

“The ripple-effect may facilitate financing to Muslim tourism entrepreneurs, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises. From this, many young generation Muslims will find tourism a promising industry in which to carve future careers, provided they can be assured of start-up support. On the demand side, the market potential is well-established. Ensuring professional supply-side facilities and services will complete the match-up.”

The full study is available for purchase at Euro50 from the UNWTO website. Click here.