▲ Malaysian tourists in Korean dress. Photo courtesy Muslim Tour in Korea
Tourism chiefs are being joined in their drive to lure Southeast Asians to Jeju Island. Malaysian Azri Che Mukhtar, the CEO of Muslim Tour in Korea, specializes in trips to Seoul and Jeju for Muslim travelers coming from his native land.
Azri is a chemical engineering student at Seoul National University, normally a ticket to success in the scientific field, but he is not yet sure his future lies in the lab: “I want to run a business as meeting new people has always excited me.”
His route into the tour industry was not straight-forward; his interest in Korea only fomented after winning a Malaysian government scholarship to study at SNU, after which the astute entrepreneur began to notice business opportunities .
“I opened a shop back in Kuantan selling Korean fashion items. Malaysians are so mad about K-pop and K-drama that the young people follow the fashion, too. We even have an expression: “you look very K-pop!”
The business opportunities work both ways and some Korean manufacturers have taken advantage of Malaysian interest in the cultural wave sweeping the nation.
“Malaysian girls wear brooches on their hijab. I buy Korean brooches in Namdaemun and sell them in my hometown. They are really popular. Even the hijab say “Made in Korea.”
Azri has little doubt that the upsurge in tourist numbers are a result of the Korean Wave.
“People are contacting me wanting to visit places they’ve seen in dramas, or they want to buy Korean clothes, like the pop stars.”
There are some concerns, however. The upsurge in tourist numbers has not been met with an equivalent improvement in facilities for Muslim travelers. While Mukhtar stresses that Muslim tourists have the same basic needs as others, there are some religious needs that can lead to discomfort.
“Muslims must pray five times a day and when we travel it is difficult to find somewhere. We have to wash and then place our prayer mats down to pray. For women it is even harder as they need somewhere more private. If prayer rooms could be provided in hotels and popular tourist sites it would be helpful,” he said.
Food is also an issue, but one guesthouse on the island is sympathetic to Muslim travelers.
“YEHA Guesthouse keeps cutlery separately for Muslims as we cannot use any that have been used for pork. When we visit they give us those to use. Otherwise we have to carry around cutlery with us to use” he said. “If other guesthouses provided this service it would definitely attract business and more Muslim travelers to Jeju.”
As tourism chiefs seek to increase the number of Malaysians reaching Jeju, Azri believes these are crucial areas to improve. Another necessity is a direct flight to Kuala Lumpur, or more connections through Incheon, to bypass the inconvenience of transferring to Gimpo. There is one more thing Azri says would guarantee more visitors.
“If they could film more dramas on Jeju it would definitely increase the interest in coming. Malaysians are always contacting me wanting to visit somewhere they’ve seen in the dramas. They should film more here,” he joked.
Azri certainly has an eye for business. In addition to his fashion outlet and tour business, he has also conducted Korean language classes in his hometown. The next step is to take advantage of the wave in the opposite direction.
“Since the direct flights between KL and Incheon, there has been strong interest in Malaysia from Koreans. I am thinking about providing tours for Koreans around Malaysia; that could be my next step.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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