GEORGETOWN, July 9 (Bernama) -- Holidays aboard a cruise ship are hardly new in the tourism industry, but somehow, it has yet to attract much attention from Muslim tourists, particularly from Malaysia.
Many factors are taken into account during the planning of a holiday, and for Muslims, the issue of halal food is a major factor and the lack of interest in cruise vacations stems from the uncertainty surrounding halal food served aboard cruise ships.
Doubts about the food are not completely baseless as there has been no certification so far by any authority on halal food served on cruise ships although cruise operators do give their assurance.
Muslims in Malaysia are also attuned to ensuring that their food and beverages are certified halal by the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia, also known as Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia (JAKIM).
Recently, this writer and 70 other media members were given the opportunity to join the luxury ship SuperStar Libra on a cruise that not only covered the Pulau Pinang-Phuket-Krabi route but also established a halal restaurant onboard the ship.
The event was jointly organised by tour agencies, namely Malaysian Harmony Tour and Travel (MHTT), Star Cruises Travel Service (M) Sdn Bhd (Star Cruise) and Santai Travel, to introduce and inform Muslim tourists in the country about the certified halal food available on board the luxury liner.
Our four-day, three-night cruise was filled with excitement and entertainment led by Datuk Aznil Nawawi or Pak Nil, a popular local celebrity and television personality.
KEEPING THE FOOD HALAL
Consuming only halal food is a strict practice among Muslims, and the credibility of the chef or cook who is preparing the food is also taken into account.
Muslims also need the assurance of adherence to halal principles on raw foods that are being used in the cooking of chicken and meat.
Apart from that, patrons of Muslim restaurant also want to ensure that food enhancers or flavours and even the pots, pans and plates are in line with halal requirements. In fact, the utensils should not be mixed with those used in the preparation of non-halal food.
It is in view of such requirements by Muslim tourists that Star Cruise, a cruise ship operator, took steps to refurbish its SuperStar Libra ship to house a halal restaurant.
Named Spice, the restaurant is located on the 10th deck of the ship and can accommodate up to 70 customers at a given time.
The restaurant, which offers both set and buffet style meals, also has a lounge area for guests to relax and unwind with their family and friends.
Cynthia Lee, Deputy President of Star Cruise Sales Division, said the company is hoping to attract more Muslim tourists to take up cruise vacation packages, especially after the launch of the restaurant.
"For a start, we want to attract Muslim tourists from this country and then from other countries and regions such as Indonesia and the Middle East," she said.
At the restaurant, more than 30 different dishes are displayed on the menu, including rice dishes such as nasi kandar, nasi beryani, honeyed chicken, mutton curry, mixed vegetables and local salads as well as deserts such as sago pudding, ice cream and fresh fruits.
This writer's personal favourites were redfish curry, spicy prawns and the special sambal belacan made by Chef Saifol Iskandar Ikhsan, who also manages the restaurant.
ENDORSED BY JAKIM
The opening of Spice Restaurant, meanwhile, marks a new milestone for the cruise operator in the global tourism industry, having acquired the halal status for its restaurant from Jakim.
The idea of opening a restaurant came about when the Star Cruise management realised that Muslims were not fond of taking up cruise vacation packages because of the food served on cruise ships.
The Spice Restaurant was then set up in sync with all the halal regulations set by Jakim.
Chef Saifol himself was responsible for all matters related to the application of halal status to the restaurant.
The chef, who has been with Star Cruise for 15 years, admitted that while the certification process was highly challenging, he was determined to continue with efforts to ensure that the plan to open up a halal restaurant came to fruition.
"It is not easy to get Jakim's endorsement. There are many rules to be followed. The entire kitchen had to be revamped. We had to change the pots and pans, plates, cutlery and dining sets to remove any lingering doubts.
"It was only after Jakim officials visited the ship several times that the restaurant was certified of having met all the regulations," he said.
Meanwhile, raw food supplies for the restaurant are only sourced from suppliers that have been endorsed by Jakim. Food supplies that are brought in from Thailand during the stopover are also ensured of halal certification.
The halal certification in Thailand is provided by the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand (CICOT), which is also endorsed by Jakim and is in the list of overseas halal bodies that one can refer to at Jakim's official website at http://www.halal.gov.my/v3/index.php/ms/senarai-badan-islam-yang-diiktiraf.
A DIFFERENT EXPERIENCE
Our cruise began at Pulau Pinang, after which the ship called at Phuket harbour. Here, tourists were allowed to tour the place and shop for nine hours.
Meanwhile, the journalists were given a tour of a factory that processed cashew nuts, and taken to a show that featured an elephant and a monkey, a shopping complex called Jungceylon and its surrounding area.
The next day, the passengers visited Krabi. The ship sailed further and was anchored right in the middle of the sea and the tourists were taken to land on transit boats.
An interesting lunch was organised by our host at Rabeabâ€™s Kitchen, a halal restaurant certified by CICOT.
"Vacationing onboard the SuperStar Libra is very convenient. Once registered, a guest need not check in to a new room or hotel like it is usually done when holidaying in several places. Food is served four times a day, and everything is included in the paid package. No additional costs are involved," said Datuk Cooper Huang, MHTTâ€™s Chief Executive Officer.
One tourist who was happy with this kind of arrangement was Zulkipully Sarudin, 64, from Georgetown, for whom this was the first cruise holiday package.
"This is a new experience for me. The service on board the ship was really good, just like a five-star hotel. Initially, I was a bit concerned about the food but then when the chef explained that everything had been certified by Jakim, I stopped worrying," said Zulkipully.
Sharing the same sentiment were Abdul Aziz Ashaari, 56, and Zurina Abdullah, 53, a couple celebrating their 29th wedding anniversary on board the ship.
"This is the second time we are holidaying on a ship. For those who have yet to try such a vacation, I will encourage them to give it a try. There are many activities for us to participate in throughout the trip, including learning to cook, performing magic tricks, and touring places such as Phuket and Krabi," explained Abdul Aziz.
"We plan to bring our children next time around," Zurina said, adding that the couple have three young daughters between the ages of 23 and 28.
CRUISING WITH AZNIL
Meanwhile, this November, MHTT will be organising a special package called "Cruising with Pak Nil" to further promote cruise vacation packages to Muslims.
Aznil, who has been in the broadcasting industry for 29 years, said the concept of "a holiday with family" will be used for the special vacation package.
"I invite my fans to bring along their families to join the vacation programme, which will be the first of its kind," said Aznil.
Among the many perks include free tours of Phuket and Krabi for participants of the programme.
Further details about this package or other cruise packages offered by Star Cruise can be obtained by calling MHTT at 03-21429266 or by sending an email to email@example.com.
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