I had Muslim friends from abroad visit Manila a couple of weeks ago. Their complaint: no halal food. It seems they asked for salad with no pork. They were served salad with bacon. When they rejected the dish, they were told “But it’s bacon, not pork!” So I thought to write about how to attract Muslim tourists to the Philippines, given government’s strategy to bring in well-heeled Muslim visitors. Did you know that tourists from the Middle East increased by 10.5% last year as compared to an increase of 3.5% for all tourist arrivals?
The diversity of cultures in Southeast Asian countries has been a factor highlighted by their governments to attract tourists to their countries. Major examples are Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. Singapore, for instance, pays attention to its Malay and Islamic culture to attract well-heeled Muslim tourists. The Philippines, a Christian rock in a Muslim sea, has began to do the same. However, unlike Singapore and Thailand, we do not have facilities and events to cater to Muslim tourists. Which is a shame, considering the history of Islam in this country and the richness of our diverse cultures.
Seafaring Muslim traders introduced Islam in the southern Philippines in the 14th century. When the Spanish arrived in 1521, they found the Muslims governing most of the islands. In the 15th and early 16th century, four Islamic sultanates emerged in the southern Philippines: the Sultanates of Sulu (governing the Tausug, Sama and Yakan tribes), Maguindanao, and the Maranao.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Sulu archipelago was a major trading zone, as it lay at a most strategic point for maritime trade between the kingdoms of Southeast Asia and beyond the Pacific Ocean.
By the 18th century, Spain — with its superior military force — had Culture and Power of Sulu) in 2008 tells the story of power and trade relations among the Spanish, Dutch, British, and Chinese in Southeast Asia. In order to have goods to barter for Chinese tea, the British traded firearms to Sulu in exchange for its sea and forest products. The Chinese meanwhile bartered their textiles (silk) and other products for the famous Sulu pearls, native mats, yellow wax, wood, tortoise shell and others. The barter trade of the Sultanate of Sulu has continued to this day, but now heavily regulated and taxed by government and taken over by the Maranaos.
The Muslim sultanates stood firm against outside forces, thru the waves of colonization — Spanish, American, Japanese — and the early days of Philippine independence. Islamic and indigenous culture and traditions have therefore survived colonization in Muslim Mindanao. Today, Muslim Mindanao has retained much of its indigenous ways of life, an exotic and colorful world in the midst of the westernized and Christianized Philippines. Certainly a potential attraction for tourism, assuming we can have peace and order. (A huge assumption.)
Over the last four decades, both poverty and armed conflict have propelled hundreds of thousands of peaceful Muslims to leave Mindanao and establish communities outside Muslim Mindanao, with a tiny mosque now ensconced in each province and city. The Muslim diaspora in the Christian cities has grown over the last 40 years. Big communities now exist in all major cities such as Manila, Cebu, Baguio, and Davao which are major tourism destinations. A community of traders exists even in the beach resort of Boracay and stormy Batanes. According to the National Statistics Office’ population census in 2000, over 5% of the Moros now live outside Mindanao.
Clearly, with the wide spread of Moro population throughout the country, there should be no reason why the Philippines cannot have the backbone of a strategy to attract Muslim tourists.
Did you know that the Muslim pearl traders have made Greenhills Shopping Center an international destination for those who want to buy pearls? Hundreds of Muslim pearl traders have established themselves at the Greenhills tiangge over the last 40 years. Word has it that even the Queen of Spain had travelled to Manila to shop for pearls in Greenhills. Most of the Muslims who left Mindanao were traders of consumer products such as pearls as well as textiles and food items from the barter trade between Muslim Mindanao and Malaysia. These Muslim traders established their businesses and small communities in the Christian areas, bringing their culture and traditions. Shoppers would go to the Muslim community in Quiapo, Manila to buy products from Malaysia and Indonesia as well as indigenous items such as handwoven textiles and handicrafts.
However, the Philippines has to develop more facilities, activities and services to attract Muslim conquered most of islands now known as the Philippines. An exhibit at the Yuchengco Museum (Beyond the Currents: The tourists. Why haven’t we?
For instance, a requirement of Muslims (Filipinos and tourists alike) is halal food and facilities. The Muslim diaspora in the Christian dominated cities has been clamoring for the establishment of more halal facilities. Why isn’t there an incentive program to develop this industry? Today, only a very few major hotels (Manila Hotel, Makati Shangri-La Hotel, Resorts World and the Heritage Hotel) offer halal food as do a handful of restaurants (Hussein’s, Cafe, Prince of Jaipur, and small ones in Muslim communities in Quiapo).
Lets talk about activities. While the Philippines has well-established festivities for Christmas and Chinese New Year, it lacks a major festival to attract Muslim tourists. The Eid’l Fitr Festival is a major attraction in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. Despite the fact that tourism plays an important role in the Philippine economy, celebrating Eid’l Fitr has not been utilized as a revenue generating or tourism activity. Given its income generating and tourism potentials, the Philippines should be moving forward to develop the economic potentials of Eid’l Fitr just like its neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
My mother, former Senator Santanina Rasul has been organizing the Eid’l Fitr Festival in Metro Manila since 1993. Commemorating the culmination of the 30-day fast of Ramadan, the Eid Festival provided a venue for promoting the arts, culture, and history of the Muslim Filipinos as part of the Filipino heritage. Activities during the Festival included, cultural presentations, trade fairs of Muslim products, food, exhibits. She chose malls as sites (SM, Ayala Mall’s Greenbelt, Robinson’s Galleria, Shangri-La Plaza) to make the celebrations accessible to all.
If only government invests more resources into making the Eid’l Fitr a nationwide festival! It has the potential to contribute to the national economy. Unfortunately, Senator’s Eid’l Fitr Festival has not been fully supported by government, which has set its sights on attracting the Middle East and Muslim tourist markets.
Calling Department of Tourism! You can’t attract Muslim tourists if you have no attractions for them! Twerking may be good for liberal parties, but no good for Muslims.
Originally published on www.bworldonline.com