The Korean government is planning to expand the number of Muslim-friendly restaurants here.
Korea Tourism Organization announced that it will expand the number of such restaurants from 135 to 170 to help reach its goal of hosting 1.2 million Muslim tourists this year.
It started receiving applications from local restaurants Monday and will continue to do so until April 28.
The measure is part of the KTO’s plan to diversify the country’s tourism market, in anticipation of declining numbers of Chinese tourists due to a recent diplomatic spat between Beijing and Seoul surrounding the deployment of an advanced US missile defense system here.
The Korea-US alliance decided last year to station the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system here, which China claimed was against its strategic interest.
The Beijing government has been curbing Chinese tours to Korea, including a reported order to ban its tourism agencies from selling Korea-related programs.
This is a severe blow for the local tourism industry, as 8.05 million of the 17 million foreigners who visited the country last year were Chinese.
“Since the need to expand the tourism market is greater than ever, we will attempt to raise the number of Muslim tourists from 980,000 last year to 1.2 million,” said Park Jeong-ha, director of KTO’s marketing planning team.
The number of Muslims visiting Korea in 2016 increased by 33 percent compared to the year before.
Meanwhile, the KTO has been seeking to expand the number of tourists from countries other than China.
“We allocated a lot of budget that was originally directed at the Chinese market to other regions like Southeast Asian countries,” said a KTO official.
The KTO’s standard for Muslim-friendly restaurants has four categories; those that are halal-certified by the Korea Muslim Federation, those that are self-certified by owners and cooks as being Muslim and using exclusively halal ingredients, those that sell halal food but also sell alcohol which is banned for Muslims-- and those that are free of pork, which is also banned by Islam.
Korea Tourism Organization plans to attend tourism exhibitions in countries with a large Muslim population, such as one in Kazakhstan in late April along with tourism trade shows in Malaysia and Indonesia in the second quarter.
The KTO will also launch a weeklong halal festival for Muslim travelers in September, during which local food made according to halal rules will be featured.
However, whether many Korean restaurants will apply for the halal certification remains to be seen, as some feel that the certification would not be worth the effort and cost.
Cho Hee-kyung, the owner of three Michelin star restaurant Gaon and one Michelin star restaurant Bicena, expressed difficulties in receiving the halal mark.
“In the past, I looked to receive the certification, but there are lots of preparations to be made. Everything has to be different, from the cutting board to knives,” she said, adding that her restaurants have given up on it.
To be halal-approved, operators of the restaurant also have to undergo a training program presented by the Certified Halal Internal Auditor.
Furthermore, Cho said that her restaurants -- which are popular among foreign visitors -- has attracted plenty of Muslim customers with its vegetarian menu, even without the halal seal of approval.
Instead of just focusing on halal certificates, she said the more important thing would be to find aspects of Korean traditional dishes that can be appreciated by foreigners.
“One of the strong points of Korean dishes is its vegetarian menu. I think it would be better for us to present something new that has its own value,” she said.
Despite this, Cho agreed that more Muslim-friendly restaurants would be “the way to go,” given the huge Muslim demographic.
“It is a huge market, and it’s important to target it. As a restaurant, it is only natural to want to attract a wider range of customers,” she said.