A Welcoming Land for Muslim Tourists—Building a Muslim-Friendly Environment

From Taiwan Panorama 2020-06-08
Shangrila Leisure Farm (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Shangrila Leisure Farm (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Thanks to cooperation between the government and private sector, increasing numbers of people are joining the effort to create a Muslim-friendly environ­ment in Taiwan, opening their arms to welcome Muslim visitors for tourism and leisure.

In 2015, for the first time, Taiwan cracked the top ten among non-Muslim countries in the Global Muslim Travel Index (GMTI), coming in at number ten. In 2016 Taiwan jumped to number seven, and in 2019 was ranked third, tied with Japan and the UK. Clearly Taiwan has been making progress in creating a Muslim­friendly environ­ment.

Private-public partnership

The Qur’an (Koran) sets the rules of daily life for Muslims: Five times each day one must face Mecca and pray; eating pork or animal blood is forbidden; and for other kinds of meat the animal must be alive and healthy before slaughter and the name of Allah must be invoked at the time of slaughter in order for the meat to be acceptable for consumption. Ismail Wang, executive secretary of the Taipei Grand Mosque Foundation, says that Muslims must purify themselves with ablutions before worship, and must wash themselves with water after going to the bathroom. Therefore, if you want to get a share of the Muslim travel market, there is no choice but to provide prayer rooms, install appropriate sanitary equipment, and offer food and beverages that conform to halal norms.

Although Taiwan is not an Islamic country, the island has ten mosques, and Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has been continually promoting the creation of a Muslim-friendly travel environment. Already a total of 72 venues—­including 13 national scenic areas, international airports, the National Palace Museum, Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, and the Taipei Children’s Amusement Park—have installed Muslim-friendly facilities.

To encourage more private-sector businesses to join in, in 2012 the Tourism Bureau began working with the Chinese Muslim Association to hold seminars on Muslim Friendly Tourism certification, giving those in the food and beverage sector a better understanding of Muslim precepts and explaining the requirements for certification. For example, food ingredients must conform to Islamic religious teachings and exclusive cooking utensils and containers must be used. Although the requirements for halal certification are strict, they are not as complicated as one might imagine. So long as you understand basic Islamic doctrine, with empathy you can prepare dishes that meet the needs of Muslims.

According to Tourism Bureau statistics, as of the end of March 2020 there were 285 halal-certified restaurants and Muslim-friendly restaurants and hotels across Taiwan, spanning the range from five-star hotels to recreational farms and small eateries. When the small restaurants opened by Indonesian immigrants to Taiwan are counted in, there has been a great increase in hospitality industry options for Muslims.

Each weekend Muslims from all over Taiwan gather at Taipei Main Station; this scene is now an established part of Taipei life. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Each weekend Muslims from all over Taiwan gather at Taipei Main Station; this scene is now an established part of Taipei life. (photo by Jimmy Lin)

Delicious, appealing, and fun

Muslims consider family life to be very important, and mostly travel in family groups. Aside from having special dietary and prayer requirements, Muslims in fact hope for the same things as everybody else from travel, including opportunities to appreciate the nat­ural scenery and experience local culture.

Shangrila Leisure Farm, located in Yilan County, was part of the first group of tourism businesses to receive halal certification. Some of its buildings are in the Southern Fujianese style, and each room is fitted out in fragrant Taiwan cypress wood. You can pick fruit and vegetables or admire the scenery on the 18-hectare farm. The delicious halal meals served there are all creative Taiwanese dishes made with fresh local ingredients, earning great word of mouth among travel agencies and enabling the farm to attract 200‡300 Muslim visitors a year.

At an elevation of 250 meters above sea level, Shangrila Leisure Farm offers scenery that varies with the seasons but also from hour to hour on any given day. Sometimes it is clear in the morning followed by showers in the after­noon, and the mists that envelop the farm after rain lend their own kind of romance. By day, Muslim travelers who come to Shangrila can explore the nearby Wuxinshi Trail, while at night the farm stages a variety of activities for visitors, including watching puppet theater performances, spinning Chinese tops, making tangyuan (glutinous rice balls), and releasing sky lanterns. Staff explain to overseas guests that in Taiwan tangyuan symbolize “completeness” or “family unity,” and are considered essential for Lunar New Year celebrations and other joyous occasions. The staff provide individual cooking pots to allow guests to experience the fun of preparing tangyuan. Releasing sky lanterns represents wishes for good fortune; this activity has no religious significance and is popular with Muslim visitors. The farm has continually worked to give Muslim guests first-hand experi­ences of Taiwanese culture.

Authentic Taiwanese flavors

When the subject of halal-certified or Muslim-friendly restaurants in Taiwan comes up, we tend to think of places specializing in foreign cuisine, such as Turkish or Indonesian restaurants. “It was as if Muslims coming to Taiwan could only eat the food of other countries,” says Louis Tsai, project manager at the Super Qin Group. “We wanted to get halal certification so that Muslims can eat food with an authentically Taiwanese flavor.”

The core business at Super Qin is chicken slaughterhouses, and chairman Cho Yun Yu, who has been in the poultry industry for 40 years, takes great pride in the quality of chicken meat from Taiwan. Super Qin turned part of their slaughterhouse operations over to Muslim staff to slaughter the birds in the prescribed Islamic manner, and in 2015 received halal certification, enabling them to supply fresh chicken meat to Muslim consumers.

Taking advantage of this opportunity, the restaurant chain “Fried Chicken Master,” a subsidiary of Super Qin, began working to become Muslim-friendly. This was not simply a matter of switching over to halal-certified ingredi­ents. To ensure that their products retained their original flavor, researchers at the company had to adjust the flour mix, marinade, and spices, and only arrived at a satisfactory taste after continual trial and error. Take for example Fried Chicken Master’s classic “Taiwanese-style salt and pepper” flavor. Freshly deep-fried yansuji (Taiwanese popcorn chicken) is put into a container, then salt, pepper, garlic, and hot peppers are added, and finally the mixture is shaken (in imitation of Taiwanese-style stir fry) to spread the ingredients evenly. They had to try many different ratios of pepper to salt, not to mention considering the saltiness and spiciness of the dish.

After a year, at the end of 2016 the Nangang branch of Fried Chicken Master led the way in getting halal certification. One Muslim family living on Yangmingshan, hearing that Taiwan finally had fried chicken that Muslims could eat, made a special trip by car to try it out. As other branches received certification one after another, Fried Chicken Master’s fame began to spread among Muslims. The Gongguan branch, for example, draws Muslim students from nearby National Taiwan University and National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, as well as worshippers from the Taipei Grand Mosque, so it’s no wonder that 40% of sales revenue there is from Muslims, giving an indication of the restaurant’s popularity with the Muslim community.

Today Fried Chicken Master has branches in Malay­sia, Indonesia, and Cambodia. They have continued to adhere to the brand’s original goal of “giving everyone the opportunity to eat delicious Taiwanese fried chicken, regardless of race, gender or religion.”

The Taipei Beitou Health Management Hospital has the only MRI scanner in Taiwan with an “anxiety-reducing ambient environment.” This helps patients through the lengthy examination, and also leaves Muslim health tourists amazed at the quality of healthcare in Taiwan. (photo by Chen Chun-fang)

The Taipei Beitou Health Management Hospital has the only MRI scanner in Taiwan with an “anxiety-reducing ambient environment.” This helps patients through the lengthy examination, and also leaves Muslim health tourists amazed at the quality of healthcare in Taiwan. (photo by Chen Chun-fang)

A different kind of Taiwan journey

It is not only the hospitality industry that is reaching out to Muslims; Taiwan’s healthcare sector is also working to create a Muslim-friendly environment. Numerous hospitals, including Linkou Chang Gung Memorial Hospital, National Cheng Kung University Hospital, and Taiwan Adventist Hospital (TAH) have set up prayer rooms to offer Muslims a space for spiritual solace. TAH has even set up a special halal area in its restaurant, so that Muslims who visit the hospital can eat there with peace of mind. TAH was the first hospital in Taiwan to receive the Muslim Friendly Hospital Certificate.

Taipei Beitou Health Management Hospital (TBHMH) is the second hospital to receive this certification. To achieve this, TBHMH reorganized its layout, creating gender-separated waiting rooms and prayer rooms for Muslims and setting up a halal food preparation area in its kitchens, and adjusted its medical service provision to respect Islamic teachings about differentiation between men and women.

TBHMH specializes in health checks and cosmetic medicine. Consultations are by appointment only, and the hospital is able to effectively route Muslims through on their own track, arranging for specialized personnel to guide them through the check-up process. The hospital has works by Beitou artists on display so that visitors can appreciate the local scenery as they move from room to room and thereby ease the anxiety of the check-up. Vice-superintendent David J.W. Wei says that the hospital’s main aim is to provide precise and efficient health checks, for which they have brought in high-grade test equipment, such as ultra-slim high-resolution gastro­intestinal endoscopes made by Olympus of Japan, and the only magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner in all Taiwan with an “anxiety-reducing ambient environment.” A full 90% of test results can be determined the same day. Moreover, hospital medical staff are fluent in foreign languages, enabling them to provide Muslim visitors with the highest quality health check services.

Going through the halal certification process provides an opportunity to increase mutual understanding, because only by understanding the needs of Muslims can one take care of every detail. For example, if Fried Chicken Master employees buy take-out meals containing pork for their own meal breaks, they do not eat them on the restaurant’s premises. Also, the dis­infect­ants they use during the coronavirus pandemic are not based on alcohol, but on chlorine dioxide instead. These are all ways of showing respect to Muslim customers. Let us hope that all kinds of businesses will adopt Muslim-­friendly practices, so that more Muslims can come to Taiwan to admire the scenery and enjoy the cuisine. Taiwanese love to show their hospitality by treating travelers as friends visiting their homes.

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