In late 2015, the Department of Standards with the cooperation of Islamic Tourism Centre (ITC) revealed a host of guidelines to help promote Malaysia as a Muslim friendly destination.
Deputy Tourism and Culture Minister Mas Ermieyati Samsudin stated then the standard ‘MS2610:2015-Muslim Friendly Hospitality Services - Requirements' was to ensure the integrity of the product and services for Muslim visitors.
“For the hoteliers, tour service providers and tour guides, this standard will show them the proper ways to provide the best services for Muslim clients,” she said of the standards.
The country expects to draw 3.2 million Muslim tourists in 2016. Muslim tourists, other than those who go to umrah and haj, represent a significant figure in tourism receipts and they have contributed more than US$140 billion in global tourism in 2014. Muslim travellers are expected to contribute to more than US$230 billion in 2020.
In so far, there has been no framework for the Islamic tourism sector and even the standard is to be adopted on voluntary basis.
However, ITC wants to see tourism industry players in the country implement the syariah-compliant standards so that they could capture a slice of the pie of the Islamic tourism market.
While deliberating on the syariah-compliant standards, several hoteliers had pointed out to the success of the De Palma Hotel Group in emerging as among the earliest syariah-compliant hotels in the country. The group's general manager Mohd Ilyas Zainol Abidin was largely credited for the success.
Mohd Ilyas, who is also the managing director of Biztel Sdn Bhd, started transforming De Palma Hotel Group from a conventional hotel to a 'Islamic Hotel’ in 2008 by offering services and hospitality that conformed with the syariah principles.
Hence, De Palma not only provides comfortable rooms with adequate facility to conduct prayers, banquet halls and meeting rooms close to the surau (prayer room), serves no alcohol, and even the entertainment provided has to conform with the Islamic requirements.
Moreover, the syariah compliance does not stop there. The hotel also organises learning sessions, tarawih and Qiamulail prayers each Ramadan, celebrates the orphans and Muslim marriages. The Muslims residing nearby also have the privilege of attending the Friday prayers organised by the hotel's surau.
All these activities have been well received by the Muslims, who are confident with the hotel as they have nothing to fear when comes to fulfilling the syariah requirements.
As for Mohd Ilyas, the first and foremost step in achieving syariah compliance is ensuring cleanliness in every aspect of service.
In De Palma, cleanliness is not only limited to the rooms and facilities, but also up to the attire used by the employees and in every step of the food preparation.
The halal food have to be prepared clean right from the start, said Mohd Ilyas. So, it will not be a surprise to see hotel workers perform ablutions before starting to prepare food.
The Japanese guests who noted of this practice were impressed enough to return to the same hotel, said Mohd Ilyas, adding that the locals too were convinced by the syariah-compliant standards adopted by the hotel.
“I see that the Muslim travellers need not change his/her routine during their stay in De Palma, because right from the preparation of halal food, providing facilities for prayers and etc, religious talks and breaking fast with dates and the Zamzam water, it's all like right at their home. They don't have to step out of the hotel to fulfil their spiritual needs,” he said.
When he introduced this concept in De Palma, Mohd Ilyas had no benchmarks to keep up with but his hotel has now set the precedent for the others in the hospitality industry.
However, there are also those who view the syariah-compliant idea with cyncism.
“I was once asked, whether the hotel will inquire on a couple's relationship when they come to check in. No, we don't do that as we believe that those who come to our hotel will have adhered with the stipulations in Islam in the first place," he said.
There was also a comment on a tourism portal that the hotel has no separate pools for men and women as it is a standard in being syariah-compliant, Mohd Ilyas replied that the hotel has to make do with what it has for now. The separate pools will be considered when the hotel is upgraded.
Huge economic potential
From the economic perspective, with 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, the syariah-compliant hotels promise a huge economic potential, said Mohd Ilyas and this was agreed by TH Global & Services Sdn Bhd CEO Adly Mohamed.
Adly provided the example of the toiletries supplied to the TH Hotel chain, which were all halal and required special production techniques that could only be done by certain parties.
TH Hotel's fragrance for the toiletries are based on the honey dew, that is locally grown.
So, it inadvertently turned up to be TH's mission to provide a lifeline for those involved in the related fields, he said.
The De Palma Hotel also did the same, its yong tau foo supplied by a bumiputera entrepreneur is now widely accepted by Muslim consumers.
Moreover, they complement the numerous Muslim-friendly holiday packages offered by tour operators throughout the world, including trough the websites.
Both Mohd Ilyas and Adly concurred that being syariah compliant does not stop at halal food and employees in modest clothing, the concept also called for a workforce with adequate skills and knowledge.
Thus both put their workforce on vocational and professional training programmes regularly.
The syariah-compliant hotels open employment opportunities for the women in hijab, as the conventional hotel industry does not favour employees in hijab manning the front desk.
Going forward, both Mohd Ilyas and Adly Mohamed believe if the syariah-compliant standards are implemented wholeheartedly and supported with the required facilities, there will be a healthy supply and demand situation.