KUALA LUMPUR/SINGAPORE - On Friday, Fahmy Aziz went for the first Friday prayers since the March 15 terror attack on a mosque in Christchurch. Taking his four-year-old son with him, he was nervous that something similar might happen again.
When Aziz, a Malaysian who has lived in New Zealand since 1999, reached his small suburban Auckland mosque, he was astonished to find the place packed not just with worshippers, but “non-Muslims, Pakeha (Europeans), Maori, Samoans, Indians and Chinese”.
“There were probably about 50 or more, sat all around us in the small mosque. For the first time the mosque was full,” he told Salaam Gateway.
A member of the Malaysian family that owns Mesra Homestay, a halal bed and breakfast and tour operator specialising in Muslim-friendly packages, Aziz was initially concerned how his business might be affected by international coverage of the attack.
“I never thought a peaceful country like New Zealand would ever encounter a nasty thing like this. I thought it was going to impact tourism, definitely, that was my immediate concern. I thought it might tarnish New Zealand’s record of being a safe haven,” said Aziz.
Now he believes the reaction within the wider New Zealand community to the atrocity, in which a gunman killed at least 50 people at a mosque during Friday prayers, has served to encourage more Muslims to consider the country as a destination.
Mesra Homestay relies for its business on Muslim guests from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.
Steven Dixon, Tourism New Zealand’s Regional Manager for South and Southeast Asia, told Salaam Gateway the authority doesn’t have specific data tracking Muslim traveller arrival growth but cites Muslim-majority Malaysia and Indonesia as good barometers.
“Both of these markets have grown strongly over the past three years: Indonesian arrivals have increased from 16,320 YE January 2016 to 26,058 YE January 2019– growth of 60 percent; Malaysian arrivals have increased from 34,480 YE January 2016 to 56,903 YE January 2019- growth of 65 percent,” Dixon told Salaam Gateway in an email.
At this stage, said Dixon, it is still “too early to say” if the “unprecedented” terror attack will affect the numbers of Muslim travellers to New Zealand.
“The focus at this time in New Zealand is supporting those affected by the attack and work to ensure people feel safe and secure,” said the official.
Dixon and Tourism New Zealand will be happy to hear that halal companies such as Aziz’s Mesra Homestay has already felt a positive impact of the government’s response.
“[W]e’ve found there are more people interested in coming now. I’d say, at this rate, there’s been an increase in enquiries of 50 percent over the last week alone,” Aziz said.
Many of these enquiries have come from people booking holidays who told Mesra Homestay they had never before considered travelling to New Zealand.
“They’re all keen to come. [The attack] hasn’t been deterring people because they’ve seen how the New Zealand government has reacted, and especially the people of New Zealand themselves,” Aziz added.
“They think this is just going to be a one-off thing, like a hate crime. The people of New Zealand have risen up, and I think that has made travellers feel secure. They just want to be part of that.”
Holiday companies in Malaysia and Indonesia contacted by Salaam Gateway also reported witnessing this phenomenon in the wake of the terror attack.
Owner of Patuna Travel in Indonesia Syam Resfiadi told Salaam Gateway there has been an uptick in interest.
“We have been impressed by the respect and handling of the situation by the Prime Minister [Jacinda Ardern] and the citizens of New Zealand,” Resfiadi told Salaam Gateway.
New Zealand is not yet a popular destination for Indonesians due to the high cost of travel there but it has the potential to be an alternative halal destination to Europe for Indonesian Muslims seeking cooler weather, said Resfiadi.
Another travel operator, Cheriatna, who runs Cheria Travel, believes more Muslims will now be attracted to New Zealand. He, too, has not heard of any cancellations.
“New Zealand is not as popular as Korea, Europe or Japan but the New Zealand government recently started running promotional campaigns for halal travel which I am certain will spur more Muslims to go there, following the terror attack,” said Cheriatna, who goes by one name.
One travel booker in Kuala Lumpur, who declined to be named as she is not authorised by her halal travel employer to speak to the press, said she had received a “surge” of enquiries about packages to New Zealand last week.
“We were preparing for a decline and some cancellations but that hasn’t happened. Surprisingly we have had a lot more calls than usual. I think this is because of the response by the people of New Zealand who have shown they are not judgmental. The Malaysian public feels accepted there in spite of the attack,” she told Salaam Gateway.
HALAL PROMOTIONS, MUSLIM-FRIENDLY CREDENTIALS
For the year ending January 2019, New Zealand welcomed 3,883, 335 international arrivals, according to data from Stats NZ. Visitors from Malaysia and Indonesia make up only two percent of all arrivals, a number the government is keen to boost.
“Tourism New Zealand has hosted Muslim media outlets from Malaysia and Indonesia in order to showcase New Zealand’s offerings. We have also worked to raise awareness of New Zealand’s halal friendly food options through newsroom activity,” said Dixon.
Tourism New Zealand’s efforts to attract more Muslim travellers has included a Halal Food Guide launched in 2016 in association with the Kiwi Muslim Directory and the Federation of Islamic Associations in New Zealand (FIANZ). Dixon said this guide is updated every two years.
“[We] are currently working on the third edition which will be expanded to include prayer facilities,” said Dixon.
“It’s encouraging that between our first edition in 2016 and our second edition in 2018 we had a significant increase in the number of listings, with options in more regions across the country. The guide now features more than 300 options,” he added.
New Zealand’s food companies, especially its meat suppliers, are highly fluent in halal.
A leading company, ANZCO Foods, which says on its website that it’s responsible for 1.45 billion New Zealand dollars ($997 million) in sales and employs over 3,000 worldwide, is a halal beef and lamb supplier.
“All ANZCO’s processing sites are halal-certified and all animals processed are halal slaughtered,” Group Chief Executive Peter Conley told Salaam Gateway in an email. More than 80 percent of ANZCO’s production is for export.
As a result of its halal output, ANZCO has “close connections with the Muslim community”, according to Conley, which further underlines wider New Zealand’s show of support for its local Muslims post-Mar 15.
‘POSITIVE IMPRESSION’, ‘EXCELLENT’ RESPONSE: HALAL TRAVEL EXPERTS
Outside of New Zealand, the people influencing halal travellers have given the country a thumbs up for the way it’s handling the terror attack post-Mar 15.
Tengku Suzana, co-founder of Singapore-based Have Halal, Will Travel, told Salaam Gateway her company was already working with Tourism New Zealand on a campaign to “inspire more Muslims to visit” the country before the incident.
More assurance on safety, she said, is now required for Muslim travellers following the terror attack but New Zealand’s response is helping.
“[I]n New Zealand’s case, Muslims all over the world have seen how the locals and government are banding together to help the Muslim community and this has definitely shaped a positive impression of the country,” said Tengku Suzana.
Have Halal, Will Travel has built a large following of millennials in Southeast Asia seeking halal options during their travels. Tengku Suzana does not believe incidents such as the Christchurch attack will stop them from travelling.
“In fact, we believe that Muslims will converge in destinations that are more friendly towards them and shy away from countries that adopt an anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant stance,” she said.
Popular halal travel blogger Elena Nikolova, who runs Muslim Travel Girl, told Salaam Gateway fear will creep in for the Muslim traveller but they will not stop travelling. New Zealand has handled the situation “excellently” and this has motivated her to visit the country “sooner rather than later”, she said.
“They rallied to help the community and show they are part of New Zealand which we don't see often, this has truly showed that they are worth investing in their tourism and I am sure I am not the only Muslim traveller who shares these feelings,” said Nikolova.
“I find that moderation and inclusion always work well. The Muslim travel industry will keep growing and incidents like this will only dampen the experience for a while but overall we will continue to travel and explore,” she added.
LOCAL SENTIMENT FOR THE LONG-RUN
The halal travel experts’ comments will doubtless soothe locals’ concerns but Mohammed Alam, director of Halal Tours in Auckland, also cautions it’s too soon to tell what will happen in the long-run.
“I would say it’s too early to tell. It will take weeks or months before we can see if there is a lasting impact, but the response by New Zealand after the attack has been positive. People overseas will be seeing that,” Mohammed Alam told Salaam Gateway.
In an Auckland suburb close to Mesra Homestay, Malaysian expat Sazli Zulkifli has also been assessing what impact the tragedy might have on his business, Nasi Lemak NZ Tours.
The tour operator, who moved to New Zealand from Malaysia with his young family in 2010, also believes the government’s reaction to the attack, and the public’s solidarity with Muslims, quickly prevented damage to the local Muslim-friendly or halal tourism industry.
“We had two customers whose business we were trying to get,” Zulkifli told Salaam Gateway. “They were considering New Zealand as a destination, but after the tragedy happened, they weren’t sure if New Zealand was still safe to visit.
“You know, I didn’t have to go far to convince them. I just shared a couple of articles from the newspapers here to show how united New Zealand is and how everyone here is condemning the attacks.”
Zulkifli believes New Zealand “is like a heaven” for Muslims who are enticed by its rolling hills, clean air and strong reputation for public safety.
Fellow business owner Mohammed Alam may believe it’s too soon to tell, but Zulkifli believes the terror ttack is unlikely to affect the Muslim travel industry badly.
“I don’t see there will be any harm at all over the long-term. People will still want to come to New Zealand,” he said.
“The world is watching New Zealand and it’s being admired by everyone—it’s how well it’s handled the situation that our customers have been seeing.”
(Additional reporting by Yosi Winosa in Jakarta)
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