MANILA – The Philippine government is ramping up its promotion of halal cuisine by inviting Muslims and non-Muslims to visit Mindanao and get a fill of its best food offerings.
In a continuation of its halal tourism campaign, the Department of Tourism (DOT) on Tuesday night hosted the Bismillah: An Evening of Faith, Love, and the Flavors of Mindanao at the Dusit Thani Hotel in Makati City and gathered more than a dozen of embassy representatives, including ambassadors from Malaysia, Brunei, Pakistan, Egypt, the Netherlands, and Russia.
Tourism Secretary Christina Frasco said the initiative was meant to serve as a “launchpad” and allow foreign tourists, through their embassies, to see Mindanao as an emerging culinary destination in Asia.
“We hope that by now you have found it in your heart the convincing truth that Mindanao is truly a food lovers' paradise and at par with our Southeast Asian neighbors of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and southern Thailand with whom our Muslim brothers in Mindanao are culturally linked to,” she said.
“This gastronomic event illustrates our shift as well as expanded focus and emphasis that the Marcos administration is giving to a multi-dimensional portfolio for tourism, that is to include our heritage, our culture, and especially our flavors,” she added.
Some of the dishes served -- all prepared by Chefs Datu Shariff Pendatun, Miguel Cabel Moreno, and Jam Melchor -- were the refreshing scallop and sea urchin kinilaw, Lanao’s Pisawawan a Sapi, Sulu’s Piyanggang Manuk and Maguindanao’s Dinilutan a Seda.
Malaysian Ambassador to the Philippines Dato' Abdul Malik Melvin Castelino bin Anthony praised the degustation and cited the potential of Mindanao flavors as a draw for Malaysian tourists.
“It was amazing. I totally enjoy the flavors of Mindanao,” he said in an interview. “The culture and the food of Mindanao have so much to offer to the world in terms of how Philippines can become an important destination, especially for the halal tourism sector."
Castelino also pointed out that Malaysia has no "do not travel" to Mindanao alert for its citizens.
“At the moment, we do not have because we look at Mindanao now in terms of the security situation as safe. I myself have been to Mindanao twice, (I’ve) been recently to Cotabato, things are safe,” he said.
He likewise cited a Philippine National Police report that the situation in the region is “safe and is open for visit by foreign tourists”.
“For that alone, I think Mindanao stands poised to become an important tourism destination for Philippines. (The Mindanao food) would definitely draw (Malaysian tourists),” he said.
“You have a large Muslim population, you have different beaches, the food in Mindanao is similar to what we have in Malaysia and so all these factors, of course, the inclusion of more Muslim-friendly hotels and restaurants will make the halal tourism program in Philippines a success,” he added.
Pakistan Ambassador to the Philippines Imtiaz Ahmad Kazi, for his part, was impressed by the variety of Halal food Mindanao has to offer.
“I'm from Pakistan, we also use spices and rice but this was a wonderful experience -- the food with burnt coconut (Piyanggang Manuk), the way they have cooked rice, the way they have cooked bone marrow of beef and chicken, and the variety of seafood, I'm impressed that it was all halal,” he told reporters.
“We being Muslims we always like halal, it's a growing industry and Philippines has great potential (for it),” he added.
The envoy said Pakistan is also interested to boost cooperation with the Philippines and help promote its halal food while pushing for increased two-way tourism.
‘Preparing for tourists’
Netherlands Ambassador to the Philippines Marielle Geraedts, who was also at the event, posted on her official X account, formerly Twitter, photos of the dishes, saying "it is time to travel" to the region.
"Love the Philippines. A wonderful evening with the spectacular flavors of Mindanao, the Philippines' most Southern island. Time to travel there!" she said.
In an interview, DOT Undersecretary Myra Paz Valderrosa-Abubakar said Mindanao had been preparing for a long time to welcome foreign tourists.
The DOT, the official said, targets nationals from Muslim-dominated countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Middle East market like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
But apart from this, it also banks on the more than six million Muslim Filipinos across the country.
“Actually isa sa mga issues lang natin ngayon is ‘yong air connectivity natin (Actually one of our remaining issues is the air connectivity),” she said.
“Matagal nang pinaghahandaan ng Mindanao (ang turismo) at ngayon ready na at kaya ng Mindanao kahit sinong turista pa ang pumunta sa Mindanao, (Mindanao had been preparing for tourism and now they are ready to welcome anyone)” she added.
Frasco said there had been talks between the DOT and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to convince other nations to reconsider downgrading their security alert level for Mindanao.
“Admittedly, there are advisories that have not yet been updated to the current situation and present-day statistics," she said.
"Our hope is that by continuing this information education campaign about the peace and order situation in Mindanao and the readiness for tourism, our embassies would be able to relay this to their principal governments and that these travel advisories will be upgraded,” she added.
Frasco, meanwhile, assured that security remains DOT’s foundation for Mindanao tourism development as reflected in its agreements with the Department of National Defense and the Department of the Interior and Local Government. (PNA)