Gangneung, South Korea – The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) has cancelled plans for a mobile prayer room in Gangneung for tourists at the 2018 Winter Olympics after strong opposition by anti-Muslim campaigners, the city tourism department’s chief told Al Jazeera.
While just 0.2 percent of South Korea’s population of 51 million is Muslim, the KTO decided to build a prayer room to promote a “Muslim-friendly Korea” during the Winter Olympics, which start on Friday and increase the number of Muslim tourists.
But after “strong opposition” from some groups, city officials in Gangneung cancelled the plans.
“We had strong opposition from some religious groups who opposed the installation and threatened protests during the Winter Olympics,” Gangneung city government tourism division chief Kang Suk-ho told Al Jazeera.
“We sat down with them for talks, but in the end, we had to cancel the plans,” he added.
Kang also said he did not expect “such an extreme backlash from the group”.
“We thought it’d be nice to offer a prayer room facility at the Gangneung station,” he explained, adding that he thought the opposition to the plan was “very regrettable”.
Gangneung is set to host all indoor events.
Increase in Muslim tourists
South Korea has witnessed an increase in the number of Muslim tourists over the last few years. According to the KTO, a 33 percent increase was registered in 2016 compared with the year before, and the numbers reached 1.2 million by the end of 2017.
Tapping into this economic potential, the country has increased the number of Halal certificates for its restaurants and prayer rooms, and the Seoul Tourism Organization is promoting a series of videos showcasing Muslim-friendly restaurants around the capital.
A KTO press release last year confirmed one of its aims was that “the provision of travel convenience should be strengthened in order to increase their satisfaction and to encourage repeat visits”.
The Korean Muslim Federation (KMF) expressed its disappointment with the decision, adding that the “Olympic Games should go beyond a single nation, race, culture and religion to achieve harmonisation”.
“This decision demonstrates that we, as a host country, lack thoughtful understanding,” Lee Ju-hwa, a KMF representative, told Al Jazeera in a statement.
“Instead of claiming that the installation of a prayer room is preferential treatment given to a certain religion, we need to raise awareness that it was to consider others with different faith and beliefs,” he added.
KTO’s Director of PR Kim Yeong-ju said it was supposed to be a multi-faith prayer room.
However, the opposition group, the Pyeongchang Olympics Gangwon Citizens’ Islam Countermeasure Association, launched its protests specifically against Muslims who were coming for the Winter Olympics.
“If the room was for people of all religions, why would they have an ablution area,” the organisation’s secretary Seo said.
“From what I heard from Egyptians, there are exceptional cases when Muslims don’t pray, for example when they are on a plane or driving. So the same should be applied during the Games.
“The government has already spent too much of the taxpayers’ money on the Games, and we shouldn’t spend more building a prayer room.”
The organisation collected more than 56,000 signatures for an online petition that opposed the installation of the prayer room.
But for some Muslims families who are visiting South Korea for the Olympics, the decision to forgo the prayer room may set a dangerous precedent.
“While it would have been great to have a praying facility at the Games, the bigger worry for us is how this can set a precedent going forward,” one Muslim spectator, who asked not to be named, told Al Jazeera.
“We can offer our prayers in some corner or back at our hotel; I just hope the opposition realises what little it will achieve by not having a prayer room put up,” the visitor said.