Representatives of some 20 halal-related organisations from abroad as well as foreign diplomatic staff were among the 300 people who listened last week to keynote speeches by Thai Deputy Commerce Minister Bhumi Saraphol and ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan at the four-day Phuket Andaman Halal for Tourism 2012.
"The Thai food and tourism industries are important drivers of the Thai economy," Bhumi told the attendees. "Thailand prides itself on its diverse food production resources, from our agricultural and livestock sectors to our food processing and packaging plants".
Thailand is Asia's largest food exporter, with many products tailor-made for potential new buyers in Muslim countries abroad, including rice, chicken, shrimp and other seafood.
"These days, halal exports are a promising new market, one that should not be overlooked because Thailand has the potential to be a leading exporter to the Islamic world in the future," Bhumi said.
"Thai halal food exports have shown steady growth in recent years and the country is already sixth in the world in exports to the world's 57 Islamic countries, reaching a total of $6.8 billion in 2011. … In the first seven months of this year, exports to these same countries have reached $3.9 billion, a 12.1% year-on-year increase over the same period last year," he added.
Pitsuwan, a Muslim from Thailand's Deep South, said he has seen luxury hotels reaching out to meet the needs of Islamic tourists by providing prayer mats and offering halal food.
"Twenty years ago, Muslim tourists felt very constrained staying in hotels, but now we can see many improvements in terms of halal services put in place to meet the needs of Muslims," he said.
With the terms of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) set to take effect in 2015, the region was ready to open its arms to Muslims tourists from across the globe, he said.
"This isn't only about Phuket or even any single country taking the first step. But this is an important first step for all of us, as we can see by some 20 foreign representatives who have attended these activities," he concluded.
A food fair with staged performances and outdoor exhibitions totalling almost 100 booths took place at Sanamchai on September 7th and 8th. "Sales have been very good," said Abdulrohim Wanjanakul, a halal sweets vendor from Phang Nga province.
Mohammad Butt, a Kashmiri who has lived in Thailand for 24 years, represented the Royal Paradise Hotel, where he works as the Halal Manager.
"Our hotel has two kitchens, halal staff and halal everything," he said, adding that he attended all the seminars at the expo.
In addition to food, a wide range of Muslim garments and handicrafts were on sale, including many produced under the government's One Tambon One Product (OTOP) programme, as well as exhibitions by many corporations.
Jaofat Srisombat, 40, was among a group of Muslims who travelled from Chiang Mai in the north to attend the expo.
He was selling handmade teak woodcarvings bearing the name of Allah and other religious reminders and greetings in Arabic.
"Prices start from about 1,300 baht ($42) and go up to about 3,000 baht ($95), depending on the quality of wood and other factors. I don't do the actual woodwork on them myself, but I set up the factory in Muang District where the work is done," he said.
As night fell, people flocked to a row of 10 tents selling authentic Muslim attire from across Thailand, creating what seemed almost like an Arab bazaar in tropical Phuket.