Kelantan fragile balance between Islam and tourism

Fields with traditional wooden houses on stilts, colourful kites flying over white-sand beaches, a lively culture, tasty food and generally friendly people, Kelantan sounds like the ideal place for a

Kelantan fragile balance between Islam and tourism

Fields with traditional wooden houses on stilts, colourful kites flying over white-sand beaches, a lively culture, tasty food and generally friendly people, Kelantan sounds like the ideal place for a holiday in Malaysia. The State is considered as the cradle of Malay culture and it is indeed one of the last areas in Malaysia where travelers can experience authentic genuine Malay culture.

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There is a big “but”. Kelantan is also a State deeply rooted into a strict Islam tradition and it seems to face sometimes difficulties to make both tourism and Islam compatible. “We get regularly negative exposure, especially in Malaysia’s national newspapers as our State Government is in the opposition,” acknowledges Ahmad Shukeri Bin Ismail, Chief of Kelantan Tourist Information Center. Statistics from Kelantan show that the State does not do badly in terms of tourist arrivals. In 2007, close to six million visitors came to Kelantan, of which 1.84 million were foreigners.

However, figures do not differentiate between real tourists and visitors. Looking closer at the number of foreign travelers, 1.82 million of these foreign travelers entering Kelantan are coming in fact from neighboring Thailand. Most of them have families on both sides of border which were arbitrarily fixed through history. Deducting the Thai, real international travelers topped in 2007 only 16,288! Singaporeans and Britons- so far the two largest foreign markets to Kelantan- have less than 1,500 incoming visitors each.

Such a low figure should raise some concern from the tourism authority. The image is still to be improved and changed. Kelantan hosted last year a “Visit Year” event which had little impact on foreign travelers as it lacked a proper budget for communication. And if the State has some of the beautiful beaches of West Malaysia, they virtually remain empty of any development. Most investors still feel uncomfortable to develop resorts with the State seriously restricting investments for activities seen as potentially unfit to an islam-based community.

The State looks now at being more creative to attract more travelers. “Our duty is to promote the uniqueness of Kelantan as we have lots to offer: a genuine Malay culture, excellent food and a well-preserved nature such as Jelawang Falls in Gunung Stong State Park, the highest waterfalls in Southeast Asia at 300 m,” highlights Ismail. Home stay is becoming a strong tourist selling point for Kelantan as more and more people can enjoy traditional life of Malay farmers and fishermen. A dozen of home stays are already open to visitors.

Back to the religion issue: strong Islam belief in the province seems to put a cast on further tourism development. A few years ago, the local government decided for example to ban mak yong, a traditional dance existing for centuries recognized by the UNESCO as a living world heritage of Malay culture. The reason is that elements behind the traditional performance are not suitable for a Muslim audience as it contains reference to black magic and animism practices. “This is not the true side of the story,” explains Ismail. “We still allow mak yong performances at Kelantan Cultural Center for tourists. However, our government took away all references to spirits and ghosts incompatible with Islam,” justifies Ismail.

Government-linked newspapers in Malaysia largely echoed the ban, reinforcing the image of a not-so tourist-friendly region. Since then, the Islamic Party PAS has curved its stance and become more flexible to accommodate tourists’ needs. Mak Yong and Shadow Puppet performances are now on display for tourists in the cultural center, most mosques are now opened to foreigners as long as they properly dress. The government even thinks to open up some pondoks (religious schools) to non-muslim visitors, in a way to give travelers an opportunity to better understand Islam or also about the way Malaysia practices religion. “We already have three pondoks opened to travellers. But the diffuclty comes from a certain resilience from pondoks to be more welcoming to foreign travelers,” acknowledges Ismail.

Making Islam more accessible to foreigners –especially non-Muslim- could be one of Kelantan’s possible future tourism’s developments. It could include Islamic art, Islam teaching initiation or tours of historical mosques with architectural explanations about the way to build them. Religious ceremonies are also seen as an interesting activity for niche markets. “Traditional celebrations including the slaughtering of animals during the Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitri attract already Muslims from Singapore where the practice is banned,” tells Ismail.

With more flights coming to Kelantan –low cost carrier Firefly will start a direct service from Kota Bharu to Singapore early 2010-, the State wants to show a friendlier face to travelers and not being only seen as a transit point between Thailand and the rest of Peninsular Malaysia. “But do not expect any massive project in tourism as our government will continue to put our spiritual values above material development,” adds Kelantan tourism Chief.