Seoul is ready for Muslim business event attendees, but greater awareness of its warm welcome is needed.
Many people need to blink twice when told thereâ€™s a mosque in Seoul, including non-resident Muslims. The South Korean metropolis is far more well-known for music entertainment and pickled cabbage than its cultural diversity.
Yet in its bustling heart of Itaewon lies a grand place of worship for residents and visitors of the Muslim faith, and it is surrounded by a melting pot of restaurants from different cultures including a surprising number of Middle Eastern and halal offerings. Itâ€™s something that Seoulâ€™s promoters of convention business are keen to point out.
â€śSeoulâ€™s offering for Muslim business events is not yet well known,â€ť said Ji-hyun Kim, director of the MICE Planning Team at Seoul Convention Bureau (SCB). â€śSo we need to keep promoting the offering through things like familiarisation toursâ€ť.
Itâ€™s no secret that the Muslim travel market has been gaining in prominence in recent years, including Muslim business travel. It is projected to grow to 156 million visitors by 2020, representing 10 per cent of the travel segment and generating US$220 billion in business value, according to the latest Mastercard-CrescentRating Global Muslim Travel Index.
â€śSouth-east Asian companies, including from Indonesia and Malaysia, are on the rise and are one of the most important markets for SCB,â€ť said Kim. â€śParticipants (from these) companies are often big fans of the Korean Wave and are highly interested in Korean fashion, beauty and pop-culture. (To this end) we promote various programmes, such as the broadcasting theme park tour, SM Town Coex Artium, and K-pop singing and dancing experiences.â€ť
Kim notes that the Muslim market isnâ€™t considered large yet for Seoul but it is â€śdefinitely a market with growth potentialâ€ť. Muslims currently represent up to 20 per cent of SCB-supported programmes and the number is growing, with the incentive tours market proving to be the strongest segment.
Seoulâ€™s sprawling Coex venue for conventions and exhibitions has also been responding to the call for services for Muslim business travellers, who have use of a specially created prayer room and can request for halal dining options from Coexâ€™s official in-house catering company, Gramercy.
In addition, InterContinental Seoul Coex offers a prayer time clock, a Qurâ€™an, prayer mat, Qibla prayer direction signage and a compass while Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas hotel provides a prayer time clock, Qurâ€™an and compass.
â€śThe Muslim market is a significant one for both international conferences and tradeshows,â€ť said Stewart Ho, Coexâ€™s international marketing manager.
â€śThis is also the case for us for our own organised shows, such as the Jakarta International Premium Products Fair. Recognising the overwhelming Muslim population of Indonesia, we promote the fair as a stepping stone for trade and business in the Indonesian halal marketâ€ť.
Ho also points to the Halal Trade Expo, an annual event for the past five years at Coex, as another example of the marketâ€™s significance. The expo saw more than 30,000 visitors with 200 exhibitors in 2019, leading Ho to state: â€śAt Coex we are certainly expecting inbound numbers from Muslim-centric (countries) to continue to be bullish, if not rise, in the coming years.â€ť
But while Seoulâ€™s efforts to attract the Muslim travel market has been noted by CrescentRating, especially commending the growing halal food options, the companyâ€™s founder and CEO Fazal Bahardeen told TTGmice there are areas for improvement.
â€śHaving (more) halal food options and prayer facilities at event venues and expos, and a few fine dining halal options for business meetings (would be desirable),â€ť he said. â€śA good example is what Taipei is doing now. They recently opened a prayer room at Taipei 101. Most of the attractions also have (introduced) prayer rooms.â€ť
A Jakarta-based DMC executive who asked to remain anonymous agreed. â€ś(Seoul) needs to provide more information for Muslim visitors,â€ť she said. â€śFor example (showing the) praying direction in hotel rooms, facilitating signs for halal food at breakfast areas, awarding halal certificates to restaurants and providing more prayer rooms at (attractions).â€ť