From hotels with segregated swimming pools to jelly made from seaweed instead of pig bones, Buddhist Thailand is chasing halal gold as it welcomes Muslim visitors and tours its wares to the Islamic world.
Thailand has long been a draw for the world’s sunseekers and hedonists, drawn to its parties, red-light districts, cheap booze and tropical beaches. But it has also enjoyed 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 five-star Al Meroz hotel in a Muslim suburb of Bangkok.
The hotel opened its doors last year, setting itself apart with its attention to all things Islamic. Sanya, who is Muslim, says such checks give visitors “peace of mind” so clients never have to ask themselves “can I eat this?”
An 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.
Baharden estimates the number of Muslim travellers has surged from around 25 million a year in 2000 to 117 million in 2015. But it is not just at home that Thailand has gone halal.
From chicken and seafood to rice and canned fruit, the country has long been one of the world’s great food exporters. Now a growing numbers of food companies are switching to halal to widen their customer base and access markets in Indonesia, Malaysia and in the Gulf.
Thailand’s junta has set the goal of turning the country into one of the world’s top five halal exporting nations by 2020.
“Fifteen years ago there was only 500 food plants that had halal certification. Now it’s 6,000,” Winai said, as female lab technicians in headscarves tested food products for traces of pork DNA.
Over the same period the number of halal certified products made in Thailand has gone from 10,000 to 160,000, he added. It’s paid off. The government estimates the halal food industry is already worth US$6 billion a year.