South Korea courts Muslims to fill tourism gap

Muslim tourists pose for a photo in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace, a top tourist destination in Seoul, South Korea, in March 2018. RNS photo by Miranda Mazariegos 

SEOUL, South Korea (RNS) — The strong aroma of spices fills the air in the famous Korean restaurant Eid. Three Muslim sisters — Dina, Nana and Nurul Kamarul — sit enjoying bibimbap and kimchi, among other traditional Korean dishes. A round green sticker on the window tells visitors the restaurant is officially certified as halal.

Muslims who eat halal cannot consume any pork or alcohol. In South Korea, a country known for its soju and pork-belly barbecue, those two constraints alone can be more restrictive than they seem. The stickers are meant to help Muslim foreigners, like the Kamarul sisters, who were visiting from Singapore, find suitable food.

The stickers are part of a government-led initiative to attract more Muslim tourists to South Korea. The nation has hosted a Halal Food Festival, which recently ended; added more than 100 Muslim-friendly restaurants; and spent 200 million won — the equivalent of more than $175,000 — to provide prayer rooms at popular tourist destinations.

The Muslim tourism initiative comes after South Korea was hit with a sharp decline in Chinese visitors, who accounted for half of the country’s tourism revenue. When the U.S. deployed an anti-missile system to South Korea last year despite China’s disapproval, the Chinese government retaliated by banning tourism agencies from selling group travel packs to South Korea, slamming the tourism industry with a loss of about $6.8 billion in 2017.

“The number of Chinese tourists to South Korea plunged in 2017.” Graphic courtesy of Atlas/EchoHuang

To fill that revenue gap, the government is making the country more accessible to Muslim tourists. However, some of the efforts have been met with misunderstandings and protests.

During the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, the Korea Tourism Organization’s plans to offer mobile prayer rooms were thwarted by protests. Former President Park Geun-hye had previously attempted to build a halal slaughterhouse in South Korea to increase access to Islamic food, but it was also halted by protesters.

Song Bo Ra Ola, a teacher of Islam at Seoul Central Mosque, said Christian groups sometimes protest outside the mosque, and the mosque receives angry calls from people who are concerned about the growing number of Muslims in the country.

The protests stem from ignorance and fear, Ola said.

“The government hasn’t done anything in particular to help reduce the fear of the public. Education needs to come first — it’s a big thing,” she said. “It’s kind of hard to change people’s minds (when they’re adults), so we’re looking forward to teaching the next generation.”

In a predominantly Christian country, the Islamic population is only 0.2 percent, making hijabs and halal restaurants uncommon sightings.

However, the Kamarul sisters, who have been taking weeklong trips to South Korea for seven years, said they have not witnessed such protests. They said Koreans tend to be welcoming yet largely uninformed about Islam, prompting Koreans to ask insensitive questions.

“It’s common for them to stare,” said Dina Kamarul, pointing to her black hijab. “I don’t think they are malicious — they’re just ignorant in this religion, so we try to take it positively and explain whenever they ask.”

Dina, left, and Nana Kamarul eat in Eid, a halal-certified restaurant, while vacationing from Singapore in Itaewon, Seoul, in March 2018. RNS photo by Miranda Mazariegos

Misunderstanding halal

Although the Kamarul sisters simply avoid haram foods — those forbidden by Islam — Muslim travelers who follow strict halal guidelines will sometimes not even enter restaurants that are not halal-certified.

Eid is found in Itaewon, a neighborhood known for its bars, trendy restaurants and large foreign crowd. One of its streets, Usadan-ro 10-gil, is called “Muslim street” by the locals, because it’s swarming with immigrants predominantly from the Middle East. Their shops, markets and restaurants cater to the Islamic population.

Round stickers such as the one on Eid’s window are a common sight throughout Muslim street. They indicate restaurants are either officially certified as halal by the Korea Muslim Federation or self-certified when they’re owned and operated by Muslims. Purple “Muslim-friendly” stickers mean a restaurant has halal options, but the place itself might not be.

Most of Seoul’s nine officially certified halal restaurants are found on Muslim street. Outside Seoul, finding halal food becomes difficult.

To help Muslim tourists navigate the country, many travel agencies have tailored their travel packs.

YallaKOREA was started by Khalid Park, a native Korean who, although Catholic himself, wanted to help his Arab friends navigate his home country. Though his clients often speak English, many Koreans do not, creating yet another barrier to finding food and prayer rooms in Seoul.

Park provides his customers a notecard they can show to waiters when ordering food. It delineates halal restrictions both in English and in Korean. However, he recalls a time when one of his clients was served pork despite having shown his notecard.

South Korea, in red, located in eastern Asia. Map courtesy of Google Maps

When he told the waiter he had ordered food without pork, the waiter brought out a spoon and scooped the meat off the customer’s plate, thinking that would be enough to make the food suitable.

“Korean people think that if someone doesn’t eat pork, they can just remove the pork from the plate, and they can eat it like that,” Park said. “But for Muslim people, the cooking itself has to be done without pork from the start for it to be halal.”

Park said many of his clients come to Korea excited to visit the natural parks and mountains, so he plans several trips outside Seoul. However, leaving the capital means leaving behind most of the Muslim-friendly restaurants.

“Sometimes we have to visit Itaewon to pick up some food before starting (the tour). We keep it in the car and then eat it at lunchtime,” Park said.

Finding musallas

In addition to finding food, Muslim travel requires that tourists find adequate spaces to pray. Islam requires followers to pray five times a day, and although many practicing Muslims can pray anywhere that is quiet and clean, many strict practitioners require access to designated musallasor prayer rooms.

Although Seoul has increased the number of prayer rooms, availability is limited to about 100 facilities, many of which are in hospitals and universities, not in tourist destinations.

Nina Park, a tour guide unrelated to Khalid Park, guides predominantly Muslim groups through South Korea, witnessing how wary locals are of watching Islamic prayer.

Because of a lack of prayer rooms, she asks restaurant owners to let her clients pray after eating. Although many agree at first, she said, some rescind their offer after local customers voice concern.

Acknowledging that she had to do a lot of research before she started her job, Nina Park said the government should provide educational material in addition to the halal restaurants and prayer rooms.

“Before the government does anything more for Muslim tourism, they have to let Korean people learn how different that culture is, because people don’t understand it,” she said.

About the author

Miranda Mazariegos


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  • “In a predominantly Christian country”

    Korea is not predominantly Christian.

    Most of the population is Buddhist or follows the indigenous faith (a sort of Korean answer to Shintoism)

    Christians make up the majority of Korean immigrants abroad and are highly influential over there, but not a majority.

  • That’s not true. Over half of South Koreans do not have any religion. From the other half who do, about 60% are Christians both Protestants and Catholics. Buddhists make up the next populous with about 30%.

  • I agree. High time the US should learn about the Muslim religion.

    Islam denies that Jesus is divine, and calls on God to destroy Christians who believe Jesus is God:
    “The Jews say, “Ezra is the son of Allah “; and the Christians say, “The Messiah is the son of Allah .” That is their
    statement from their mouths; they imitate the saying of those who disbelieved [before them]. May Allah destroy them; how are they deluded?” – Quran 9:30

    Islam teaches believers not to take Jews or Christians as friends:
    “O you who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians as allies; some of them are allies of one another. Whoever of you allies himself with them is one of them. God does not guide the wrongdoing people.” – Quran 5:51

    Islam calls for crucifixion of those who fight against the spread of the Islamic message
    “The punishment for those who fight God and His messenger, and strive to spread corruption on earth, is that they be killed, or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, or be banished from the land. That is to disgrace them in this life; and in the Hereafter they will have a terrible punishment.” – Quran 5:33

    Islam teaches that in the end of times, stones will speak, and call upon God to kill the Jews:
    “Allah’s Apostle said, “You (i.e. Muslims) will fight with the Jews till some of them will hide behind stones. The stones will (betray them) saying, ‘O ‘Abdullah (i.e. slave of Allah)! There is a Jew hiding
    behind me; so kill him.’ ” – Sahih Al Buhkari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 176

  • The over half figure you are quoting doesn’t necessarily mean without any religion as in atheist/agnostic. (which is only about 15%) Korean indigenous religious belief is not generally counted in the official census. They do not have any religion is really more like “does not have an officially recognized religion”.

    Which still means it is not predominately Christian.

  • Spam from a neo-nazi copying and pasting from Islamicist cites. I was wondering when they were going to foul this nest.

  • Cherry picking any sacred scripture is not the same thing as learning about a religion.
    One could do much the same for the Bible.
    Christians have used religion as a pretext much killing and for oppression throughout history.
    There is a reason for the maxim about not throwing ricks if one lives in a glass house.

  • No, your argument lacks any sort of validity in that you clearly don’t know what you are talking about.

    In the old testament the only calls to war are when Moses leads the children of Israel to the promised land, which was promised them by Abraham as are all the seed of Abraham. That call to cleanse the promised land is not open ended.

    The new testament doesn’t have a single call to arms in it.

    Now, the quran has 107 verses of hatred within that are open ended- there is no time stamp saying I allow violence to clear the land NOW for all of mohammed’s calls are for ongoing jihad. In fact, the calls for violence in the quran are so literal that the world sees around 800 people killed by muslims every single month.

    Hmm, I lived in South Korea for 7 years and whilst most of the pics in this article are of muslim women who don’t take mohammed’s calls to kill seriously, I think the tourist planners are focusing on Kazak’s and Uzbek’s.
    The great test of the policy the ROK is pursuing will be revealed by the way the mosque in Itaewon is ‘defended’ by muslim tourists. If the local butchers who proudly display pigs heads near the mosque are attacked, then the policy has clearly failed.

  • This is not cherry picking. These commandments to use violence against disbelievers are binding on all Muslims, for all times. Go and re-read the Gospels carefully, if you haven’t done so already. You will not find one single instance of Jesus commanding His followers to kill and oppress. Not a single one. Jesus taught forgiveness of enemies, and even prayed for His executioners as they were driving nails through His sacred flesh. Christians who have acted violently have done so in spite of their religion. Muslims who use violence in the name of Islam are following the commandments of Islam. Big difference.

    Jesus Christ famously forgave the adulteress. Prophet Muhammed actually ordered a man to be stoned after he turned himself in for adultery. “A man from the tribe of Bani Aslam came to Allah’s Apostle and informed him that he had committed illegal sexual intercourse and bore witness four times against himself. Allah’s Apostle ordered him to be stoned to death as he was a married Person.” – Sahih Al Buhkari, Volume 8, Book 82, Number 805

    Lest you think I am just cherry picking, this is not the only time that the prophet had people stoned to death:
    “A Jew and a Jewess were brought to Allah’s Apostle on a
    charge of committing an illegal sexual intercourse. The Prophet asked them.”What is the legal punishment (for this sin) in your Book (Torah)?” They replied, ‘Our priests have innovated the punishment of blackening the faces withcharcoal and Tajbiya.’… So Allah’s Apostle ordered that the two(sinners) be stoned to death, and so they were stoned. Ibn ‘Umar added: So both of them were stoned at the Balat and I saw the Jew sheltering the Jewess.” –
    Sahih Al Buhkari, Volume 8, Book 82, Number 809

    Bear in mind that for Muslims, “prophet” Muhammed is the most perfect human being of all times. He is the man that pious, faithful Muslims and Muslimas seek to emulate. A man who advocated no pity for transgressors:
    “The adulteress and the adulterer—whip each one of them a
    hundred lashes, and let no pity towards them overcome you regarding God’s Law,if you believe in God and the Last Day. And let a group of believers witness their punishment.” – Quran 24:2

    Jesus or Muhammed: who do you prefer as the perfect example to mould society?

  • Islam is the only major world religion explicitly calling for the murder of Jews and Christians. It isn’t just one passage in the Quran or the Hadiths calling for the murder of unbelievers, there are myriads of them. I am not pasting from “Islamicis” cities, I am quoting from the Muslim holy book. And the Quran makes it very clear what should be done to disbelievers:

    “Fight them (disbelievers) until there is no more persecution, and religion becomes exclusively for God. But if they desist—God
    is Seeing of what they do.” – Quran 8:39

    “When the Sacred Months have passed, kill the polytheists
    wherever you find them. And capture them, and besiege them, and lie in wait for them at every ambush. But if they repent, and perform the prayers, and pay the alms, then let them go their way. God is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.” – Quran 9:5

    “Fight those who do not believe in God, nor in the Last Day,
    nor forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden, nor abide by the religion of truth—from among those who received the Scripture—until they pay the due tax, willingly or unwillingly.” – Quran 9:29

    “When you encounter those who disbelieve, strike at their necks. Then, when you have routed them, bind them firmly. Then, either release them by grace, or by ransom, until war lays down its burdens.” – Quran 47:4

    “Muhammad is the Messenger of God. Those with him are stern
    against the disbelievers, yet compassionate amongst themselves.” – Quran 48:29
    Beautiful quotes from the Muslim holy book – check them out for yourself if you do not believe me. And that is just scratching the surface. If you equate criticism of the world’s most violent religion (which explicitly calls for Jews to be murdered) with neo-Nazism, then sorry to say, you are either ignorant, or incapable of logical reasoning.

  • Christianity and Islam are like chalk and cheese. Christianity teaches forgiveness, Islam teaches revenge. Jesus forgave the adulteress even though she showed no signs of remorse. Muhammed had an adulterer stoned after he turned himself in. As you say, the only part of the Bible containing violence is the Old Testament, and the call to arms are not open ended and binding on believers for all times, they are historic.

    My belief is that the vast majority of Muslims are people of good will trapped in an evil religion. Most Muslims do not know their sacred texts, or if they do, ignore the bad bits. But at the end of the day, a religion should not be judged primarily on how its followers behave, but what its sacred texts says, and how its founders behave. Quite clearly, the Quran mandates the violent subjugation of non-believers, and Muhammed was a warlord who had many people killed. Worse, the only way for Muslims to be sure of heaven is to die as a martyr – and unlike Christian martyrdom, where the Christian gets cruelly murdered for his faith, Muslim “martyrdom” includes dying while killing others.

    Islam is in the process of conquering a godless de-Christianised West by an unprecedented immigration-invasion. I hope and pray that Japanese and Koreans will be smarter than we are, and keep Islam out of their country, as they have so far done.

  • Another worthless bigot who thinks reading hate sites qualifies as learning about another religion. Of course he agrees with the outright neo nazi.

  • Sorry buddy, but I don’t take your assertions about Islam or Muslims in general seriously. You are just rehashing garbage from hate sites and pretending you know a damn thing on a given faith.

    Any idi0t can prooftext. Christian bigots are rather skilled in doing so.

    Any fool who makes an argument “__ religion is evil” cannot be taken seriously. Nobody has to debate you here. It makes no matter what religion you fill in the blank. It’s all inherently bigoted noms née.

    Of course the fact that this is coming from a neo Nazi is especially funny. As if you are so concerned with Christians other then your sect or Jews. Your posting history which supports white nationalist groups and dogma. Denial is unbecoming and infantile.

  • You think rehashing garbage from hate sites qualifies knowing about a religion? Who are you kidding?

    You think tourists are coming there to kill infidels? Jeez you are way too far gone for reason.

  • By the standards of Islam
    –Jesus was borne of a virgin (Muslims believe this more than many Christians)
    –Jesus did indeed do many miracles (in the Qur’an Mohammad, did very few if any)
    –it is Jesus, not Mohammad who is going to save the 5000 true Muslims at the Great Battle against Ad-Dajjal.

    And in Islam, Mohammad is the top prophet ?

    Anyway, may South Korea’s tourist attraction efforts work out well.