Hoping to tap a burgeoning market among devout Muslims, Indonesia's government has teamed up with religious leaders to develop "Sharia tourism", which seeks to provide participants with a holiday experience that is aligned with Islamic values and beliefs.
A key milestone was reached in December when the Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy (MTCE) signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Indonesian Ulema Council (Majelis Ulama Indonesia/MUI), on a programme to foster this form of tourism. The government hopes to launch the initiative by June or July.
"Basically Sharia tourism is a concept [involving] leisure accompanied by religious values. It provides facilities and services closest to the values of Islam," Firmansyah Rahmin, director general of destination development for the MTCE, told Khabar Southeast Asia.
This emerging form of tourism is not the same thing as a religious pilgrimage, a practice that has existed for centuries. Rather, it entails providing a travel environment aligned with Muslim observances.
"It needs to be understood that Sharia tourism is different from a religious trip," Rahmin said.
Qur'an in each room, no liquor in restaurant
The Sofyan Hotel chain, headed by Riyanto Sofyan, is one of the pioneers behind the concept.
"We provide a Qur'an, Muslim prayer rug and directions for praying in every room. We provide toilets with sprinklers. We also don't sell any alcohol or pork in our restaurant," explained Riyanto, who is also chairman of the Indonesian Sharia Hotel and Restaurant Association (AHSIN).
Since converting to a Sharia-based model in 1994, he added, the chain's revenues have increased by 15% to 20% each year.
"Our revenue is above the growth of the industry, which is only 10% a year," he told Khabar.
In 1998, Sofyan Hotel closed down its nightclub and discotheque. In 2000, they stopped selling alcohol. And finally in 2002, it started to screen guests to ensure they are not using the hotel for activities prohibited by Islam. For example, unmarried couples are not permitted to stay.
"Guest selection is conducted to determine whether a couple who is going to check in is a married couple, family or an unmarried couple. If they are an unmarried couple and going to stay a short time, we will politely reject them," Riyanto said.
According to Riyanto, Sofyan Hotel rejects approximately 1,000 to 2,000 guests every year.
Although it adheres to the Sharia code, he said, it welcomes business from members of other faiths who are willing to comply with the guidelines.
"A Sharia hotel is not exclusive for Muslims only. It's open to anyone, whatever their race, religion or ethnicity as long as their activities do not violate any regulation," he said.
Increased prospects as industry booms
Businesses such as Sofyan Hotel are benefitting from what appears to be a growing international trend, according to industry data.
According to Crescentrating, a halal-friendly travel and tourism consultant, the world's Muslim travellers contributed as much as $930 billion to the tourism industry in 2009 (the latest).
According to country's Directorate General of Marketing, meanwhile, approximately 1.3 million foreign Muslims visited Indonesia in 2010. Riyanto said 18% of those were interested in Sharia tourism.
"Interestingly most Muslim travellers were not only coming from the Middle East but also Europe, Australia, Japan, and China. The potential Sharia market in the tourism industry remains virtually untapped," he said.
An MUI representative contacted by Khabar said the Islamic organisation is excited about the trend, but cautioned that Indonesia's religious diversity must be taken into account.
"MUI is very supportive of the development of the tourism business," said the representative, Slamet Effendy Yusuf.
But Sharia tourism, he added, is not appropriate for all parts of Indonesia because of cultural differences.
"Definitely Sharia tourism cannot be implemented in Bali or Manado (where Muslims are in the minority). However, it can be implemented in places such as East Java or Lombok. Therefore, we should be wise in implementing it," Slamet said.
According to Zoraida Ibrahim, the director of the tourism industry at the MTCE, following the Sharia code is a "lifestyle" that is proving more and more popular.
She stressed, however, that there is no obligation in Indonesia for all tourism-related businesses to follow Sharia-based practices, despite the growing trend.