For observant Muslim travellers to Japan, Kansai International AirportFor observant Muslim travellers, Japan’s Kansai International Airport has long been a food desert. Now they can slurp noodles with everyone else. In July the kitchen at The U-don, a Sanuki udon noodle shop, was halal-certified.
This was no mere act of cultural kindness: From 2011 to 2012, the Renzo Piano-designed airport witnessed a 70% increase in visitors from Indonesia, the world’s fourth most-populous nation and home to its largest Muslim population. The people’s stomachs have spoken, and halal udon was only the beginning of the airport’s-and Japan’s-larger vision to embrace Southeast Asian tourists.
A decade of economic growth coupled with a more recent boom in low cost carriers have given new wings to the Muslim-majority populations of Indonesia and Malaysia. Southeast Asia generates 11% of arrivals in the Asia-Pacific region, and the region as a whole is expected to add around 380 million more passengers a year between 2012 and 2016, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Japan wants a piece of this ever-growing cake. The country’s tourism industry is rebounding from the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, and its economy could use a boost from foreign shoppers. So while only 780,000 of Japan’s 8.37 million foreign visitors in 2012 were from Southeast Asia, the Japanese government wants 2 million by 2016, according to a recent report. To achieve the ambitious goal, it has relaxed travel visa requirements and also published a guidebook on Muslim-friendly restaurants, mosques and attractions in Japan.