Ken May

Lost in transformation

Observations on Korea's Tourist industry


This month’s article is about Korea’s tourism industry. Many people teach English and conduct business in South Korea, but relatively few westerners vacation here. Last month, I made several spontaneous road trips to learn why. As a side note: I want to announce that there are several new job openings for English teachers in Gumi City (The Silicone Valley of Korea). Your salary will be over two million won per month. If interested, E-Mail me at: soulhouse69@yahoo.com

Korea’s most recent tourism campaign promotes the slogan, “Dynamic Korea: Hub of Asia”. The self-perception is that Korea has the capacity to become the center of business and leisure travel in Northeast Asia. This patriotism derives from the fact that Korea developed, in only a few decades, from being one of the world’s poorest nations to becoming a thriving industrialized country. Its current goal is to take it one step further by becoming a hub city. South Korea has a strong economy due to its production of electronic goods, steel products, and automobiles. This modernized country has superb port facilities, industrial zones, and shipping fleets to encourage trade. Nevertheless, Korea fails to attract serious attention to its desire to be the economic center of Northeast Asia. The problem is that Korea is sandwiched between two monolithic giants. To its east Japan has the world’s second largest economy. To its west China lurks with the fastest growing economy. In reaction, with national pride still strong, South Korea wishes to promote its tourism industry.

The problem is that Korea has difficulty finding an image that it can advertise to the world to bring tourists in. There are many beautiful beaches, mountains, and temples that are worth seeing. However, many other countries in Asia and Europe also have similar attractions that can heavily compete. Why sacrifice a visit to a topless Greek island, in the Mediterranean climate, to sleep on a crowded Korean beach? Why hike up Seorak Mountain when you can ski down the French Alps? China has its Great Wall and Japan offers its Zen gardens in Kyoto. China is famous for its Kung Fu fighters and Japan widely known for its Samurai warriors. In contrast, the Korean National Tourism Organization (KNTO) can’t successfully market its own Yangban elites, who quietly practiced Confucianism during the Choson (Yi) Dynasty. The Yangban scholars lack international appeal, and the flat screen television factories won’t draw in leisure travelers either. What does Korea have then that will interest foreigners? What exactly is dynamic about Korea?

Last month I searched for the soul of Korea. My original plan was to take a train to Jeonju – the city that is widely noted for its traditional music and art. The southwestern coast of Korea receives few tourist visits, and I wondered if the little known Jeollabuk-Do province had backpacker potential. I went with a friend to the Gumi train station to buy tickets. We even brought a map to point to our travel destination. During the course of our simple business transactions no less than three Koreans cut in line. Even as money was exchanging hands, impatient individuals batted us aside so that they could buy tickets instead. The distractions had its hidden cost, as we found out later when we arrived at the wrong destination. We actually landed in the northern Chungcheonbuk-Do province in a city called Cheongju. The mistake was due to the Romanized spelling of the Korean alphabet. Each city can have multiple spellings by maps and guidebooks. Both cities in question were spelled exactly the same way on our map. Our western pronunciation must have also been flawed. The fact that we alluded to a bilingual map, with our destination circled in red ink, should have alerted the cashier. But, here we were lost in a city we never heard of before. Strike one!

In true backpacker spirit we persevered. Our objective was to find the heart of Korea. Why not look for it in a randomly selected city? The train station lacked any form of brochure or city map. If there was anything dynamic about Cheongju it remained a mystery to us. We dipped into our packs for an outdated guidebook (always a sense of defeat for me). The resource acknowledged a variety of sites nearby worth seeing: an old mountain fortress, a national museum, a sprinkling of Buddhist temples, and two mineral springs. The next problem was learning how to get to them. Most Korean streets do not have names. Therefore, there is seldom an exact address for finding desired locations. The city center was located far away from the train station and the bus information in the guidebook was not accurate. We took two of wrong buses toward the city center, and finally climbed off in some unknown district just because it had hotels. It was late and there wasn’t any sense in getting even more lost. We arrived in the seedy red light district of the city and stayed at a sex motel. Instead of exploring city sites, we ordered pizza, and stayed inside touring the G-spot. All in all it was a very good night.

The next morning we rented a taxi to get to the city center. This was the true Korea: shopping malls, neon-lit karaoke clubs, and food zones. Nearly every Korean city seems to have a districts like this. The highlight was our trip to the French-owned, Carrefour, super store. We bought a nice wine and some cheese for a romantic picnic by a very polluted river. A shallow stream of brown water tricked by as we dined below a bridge underpass. We are expatriates and the fine wine was a precious novelty even if we drank it out of plastic cups. The cheese was cut with dental floss. We tore at a chicken carcass with our bare hands while Korean joggers strove by. What made this a splendid experience was that we had each other. It was accidental tourism, full of unplanned mistakes, but we made the most out of it. The rest of the day was spent at a few temples and a municipal park. We both wanted to see the fortress and mineral springs, but there was no more time. We already squandered too much energy just trying to find them. If Korea wants to expand its tourism industry in remote cities such as Cheongju, it must first invest in basic material such as brochures and maps. It would also be useful to start providing streets with names, so that a specific address can be found.

If we were tourists we could have easily spent an extra day or two exploring the region, there are quite a few sites worthy of seeing, but as English teacher we needed to return to work. It wasn’t clear how to take a bus directly back to the train station, so we opted for a taxi instead. We attempted to communicate with drivers in both Korean and English. Even though English is a requirement in government schools few Koreans seem willing to speak it with foreigners. Students are well trained in the art of passing the TOEIC exam, but crumble when using practical English for conversation. Several taxies raced by us rather than deal with our question about rides to the train station. Once inside a taxi tourists are vulnerable to the driver’s dishonesty. To our misfortune, the taxi driver decided to hike up the fare by driving us to a train station in a totally different city. It should have been obvious to take us to the nearest station which was only 15 minutes away. Instead, he drove us all the way to the city of Jochiwon. He made his quick profit off us unsuspecting foreigners, but the bad taste afterward blocked any desire to return to the city later. Strike Two!

Korea’s main location for tourism is Seoul. During its isolated past as a hermit kingdom few travelers were allowed to venture inland. Korea’s borders were closed to westerners until the 1870s. Even today few travels venture to the smaller inland cities. The second hot spot for tourists is Jeju-Do, an island especially favored by couples on honeymoon. However, it costs nearly as much to fly to Jeju-Do as it does to Bangkok. I would rather spend the extra $100 to go to beaches in Thailand. Oddly, the fastest growing tourism attractions in Korea are the locations where Korean soap operas were filmed. Korea exports its daytime dramas (“Autumn in My Heart” and “Winter Sonata”) across Asia. They have become very successful in China, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand. Entire group tours are designed to promote soap opera related travel. Likewise, many Asians visit Korea because they are inspired by Korean movies or pop stars. This enthusiasm for Korean pop culture is called “Hallyu” (Korean Wave). Thousands of Asians flock to Korea every month to experience its culture. It is a major boast to its tourism industry, albeit one that doesn’t translate well for western tourists.

Tourism in Korea is best described as Asian. In 2004, there was a total of 5.8 million visitor arrivals in Korea (slightly more than half the amount in Thailand). Of this number 4.3 million visitors came from Asia (and 2.4 million of these were Japanese, the largest tourist group). An additional 300,000 overseas visitors were actually Korean nationals returning to the homeland. According to statistics produced by the Korean National Tourism Organization of visitor arrivals by nationality (see chart below), only two western countries made the top ten list: The United States ranked third (below China) and Russian ranked at sixth place. The entire non-Asian world combined only adds up to 1.2 million visitor contacts. The lack of western enthusiasm for Korea is detailed by the fact that, of the 1.2 non-Asian visitors, nearly half of them came from the United States. A significant percentage of these Americans visit family and friends on military bases. Without the presence of the U.S. military, how would Korea continue to attract these American visitors? The third largest group of western visitors are Canadian (more than 77,000), and I swear that 99.9% of them arrive in Korea as English teachers. They form Korea’s largest community of expatriate teachers, affectionately referred to as Canukistan.

Top Ten Visitor Arrivals to Korea by Nationality (plus Canada)
1- Japan 2,443,070
2- China 627,429
3- U.S. 511,177
4- Taiwan 304, 912
5- Philippines 213,435
6- Russia 156,876
7- Hong Kong 155,065
8- Thailand 102,000
9- Malaysia 93,985
10- Singapore 85,000
11- Canada 77,597

When you crunch the numbers Korea can hardly be characterized as a tourism hub. Nevertheless, it has improved drastically in the last few decades. In 1961, a scant 11,109 visitors arrived in post-war Korea. It first broke the one million visitor mark in 1978 (Thailand did it in 1973). The World Cup series encouraged 5.3 million visitors to arrive in 2002. The present total of 5.8 million visitor contracts translates into big business. The Korean tourism industry now earns well over five billion dollars in tourism receipts each year. In 1986, Korea broke the one billion dollar mark for the first time. Korea finally understood the power of tourism during the height of Asia’s financial crisis (1997-1998). The stock crash and declining currency value forced many Koreans to declare bankruptcy and corporate profits to plummet. However, its tourism industry surged by 34%, in 1998, due to bargain travel rates and currency exchange value. Korea hit its peak year in tourism dollars that year ($6.8 billion), a rate that it hasn’t matched ever since. The 34% growth in tourism receipts was very significant because it translated into an increase of over $1.7 billion dollars from the previous year. Not bad for a time of severe financial crisis. When the SARS virus hit in 2003 Korea’s tourism profits declined by 11% - an estimated loss of over $677 million dollars from the previous year. This impact of new tourism dollars is crucial. Now that Korean factories must compete with new Chinese enterprises, the alternative tourism industry becomes even more valuable to Korea’s fragile economy.

The question remains: will the “Dynamic Korea” promotion campaign be able to sustain its tourism industry. The “Hallyu” movement will continue to attract Asian tourists. Korea is a relatively inexpensive place to travel, even for the citizens of less developed Asian countries. It is located nearby, a quick flight away, and its easy for Asians to obtain a tourism visa. However, Korea needs to allure more western tourists into the country since their expenditure rate tends to be much hire (with the exception of Japanese tourists). The image that Korea advertises, therefore, must be strong enough to convince westerners into investing $1,000 for an air ticket to come here. The tourism campaign’s choice of a cute Pokeman influenced mascot – much like the cartoon characters used to promote the World Cup – isn’t a realistic enough image to get the attention of adult tourists. Moreover, images from Korea’s past now echo with falseness. Korean woman have given up traditional clothing to emulate western fashion. Korean men never dress like their Yangban ancestors because that lifestyle died with Japanese colonization. Old traditional villages have been demolished to make way for 20-story housing towers. Even “Hallyu” reflects western culture with its soap operas and pop music. Therefore, how can Korea use these images to bring in western tourists?

The best parts of traditional Korea hide in its mountains. There are wonderful Buddhist temples that remain active. Tourists just have to figure a way to get to them because they are rarely advertised at train stations. In my province, Gyeongsangbuk-Do, there are dozens of temples less than one hour away from my home. In Gimcheon there is the enormous Jikjisa temple which is over 1,500 years old. Near Daegu there is the Donghwasa temple with the largest statue of Buddha in the world (33 meters high). There is also a beautiful temple build directly into the rock summit of Geumosan, a mountain in the city where I live. I can even walk 15 minutes from my apartment to visit a hermitage operated by Buddhist nuns in a forest. The natural scenery and culture exists that can attract westerners, but it has to be found with some effort. The Buddhist and Shaman traditions are alive and well. However, modern Korea seems to be too ashamed of this past to actively promote it. This reluctance is due to the fact that modern Korea is comprised primarily of Christian and Confucianism religious groups.

The truth is that in its quest to become a modern industrialized nation, Korea has sacrificed the very images needed to promote itself. I live in the industrial center of Korea: Gumi City. There are two rivers near my home that had once been used by its fishing industry. Traders drifted by to sell merchandise. Today the rivers are diverted for use by its factories. What remains is a shallow brown trickle that is so polluted with chemicals that even carp can’t survive. These rivers could have been used for riverboat tours, but instead they are so depleted that I could walk across them without getting my feet wet. There is no chance to revive these rivers for ecotourism. The images that remain for westerners are factories and the Korean War. The DMZ zone is another hot spot. Tourists go there to peek across the border at North Korea or to view tunnels dug by the enemy. This limited destination focuses on Korea’s past, however, more than its potential future. Why travel a thousand miles away to a country, only to gaze at a demilitarized zone that reminds viewers that they can’t travel any farther?

To be a hub city, tourists need to link Korea with other destinations. Tourist can’t travel overland to China because all land travel halts at the North Korean border. Visitors can only link to Japan, China, and Taiwan by air – which can be very expensive without multi-stop ticketing discounts. In result, visitors come to Korea for business at a greater percentage rate than most countries. Leisure tourism remains a relatively small motive. The visitors that come here tend to be older than the tourists at more popular destinations. Specifically, Korea fails to attract the backpacking community. Korea’s tourism industry views backpackers as less desirable. Therefore, its target audience is quality tourists (in other words, people with money to burn). This miscalculation is to Korea’s misfortune. Tourists with fat wallets can afford a vacation in Europe or live like royalty in exotic Thailand. It is youthful backpackers that explore more remote areas to establish new hot spots. It is a predictable pattern: backpackers adventurously “discover” a new location, word-of-mouth attracts new visitors, a tourism ghetto eventually forms, and then quality tourists spread in as a desirable reputation is established. It is always the budget conscious backpackers that first return to an area after a financial crisis, civil war, or natural disaster (like the recent tsunami). Therefore, it is puzzling that Korea refuses to advertise a national image that will appeal to youthful backpackers.

Last month, I searched for the Seoul of Korea. My original plan was to take a train to the capital city. I did not have a set destination, but instead just took a subway to a random spot somewhere in the city center. I wanted to avoid the Itaewon district. Itaewon is the tourist ghetto of Korea (sort of like Khaosan Road, but with older tourist groups and a larger military presence). Most western tourists eventually find a pathway into the district. Itaewon is a rare island of diversity in Korea’s highly homogenous society. The district is full of Russian tourists, Arabic businessmen, Indian traders, and American soldiers. It is one of the few places to buy ethnic food or used books in English. It is the location of the infamous Hooker Hill. This red light district was once lined with bars full of prostitutes. However, recent government crackdowns have nearly turned Hooker Hill into a ghost town. The decision to halt prostitution is morally upright, but a bad choice in terms of tourism. There is a lot of money generated by vice-oriented travel. The true value of Itaewon, however, isn’t due to its tourism potential, since most western countries have similar shopping districts. The district’s importance lies with the expatriate community, who appreciate its diversity and welcome the change of pace. Itaewon is a substitute that reminds us of life back home.

My eventual destination was a street known as Insa-dong. This area is full of art houses, antique shops, and Zen-style tea houses. This single street best approximates the image of traditional Korea. Many of the buildings are constructed from wood and stone instead of concrete. Many interiors walls are textured with bamboo instead of mass-produced plastic wallpaper. Traffic is reduced so that pedestrians can walk without the fear of being struck by a motor vehicle – a very rare luxury in Korea. Insa-Dong is also a hot spot for tourism. However, there has been a major struggles to prevent its overdevelopment. Western corporations have tried to force their way onto the street. There is now a Starbuck’s, a few shopping malls, and a museum of erotica. Add one McDonald’s franchise and the street will be ruined. If Korea isn’t cautious this rare image of tradition will be lost in transformation.

Can modern images replace the traditional portraits of Korea – and still continue to attract tourists? To a degree they can. There is a large area five minutes away from Insa-dong that is comprised of drinking establishments and restaurants. Pedestrians can walk 4-5 blocks and see nothing but nightclubs, karaoke clubs, and food stalls. The district shines bright at night with neon lights in multiple colors. There are bars that tower 6-7 layers high. Korea is not known as a party destination, but it clearly has potential in this field. Tourist can drink all night on the cheap. All they have to worry about is staggering to the nearest Yogwan (budget hotel) at the end of the evening. There are dozens of cheap places to stay nearby. I found a hotel with a waterbed, video player, and private in-room computer for less than $40 per night. I also found a more seedy room for only $25. The pathetically budget-conscious tourists can sleep in the local YMCA. There are hundreds of Korean restaurants available when the munchies kick in. Korean food is tasty and inexpensive. Tourists can grill their own bulgogi on a custom-built Korean table. The district never closes. You can find a party 24 hours a day. Korea is a conservative country that probably prefers to avoid the image of a partying nightlife – especially since alcoholism is a major problem – but, this is the very bait that will allure young travelers into Korea. Throw in some bass and drums and you have a “hallyu” that western youths can really bite into.

Korea has the capacity to increase tourism to a level it never dreamed of before. Will it become a hub city? That is highly unlikely. Will it ever be viewed as a dynamic country? That is quite possible if the Korean National Tourism Organization plays its cards right. For a start they must make more remote cities accessible for random visitors. Each city should at least make maps and brochures available at train stations. Natural scenery and Buddhist temples have major appeal once visitors can find them. The large cities (Seoul, Busan, and Daegu) should promote tourist zones without congested traffic. The image of a thriving nightlife can draw visitors in. The “Dynamic Korea” campaign failed primarily because it did not understand the western images of itself. Korean tourism suffers a Catch-22: When it advertises its industrial success western tourists visualize factory pollution and traffic jams; when it promotes it traditional past it only reinforces the belief that Korea is a xenophobic nation – a hermit kingdom that distrusts all things foreign. Traditional Korean society no longer exists, and the transformed nation is viewed as too stuffy and factory-ridden. Korea needs to downplay the DMZ Zone, in favor of an updated image that is not bound to past wars. The rapid post-war industrialization that Korea is so proud of, is the very thing that frightens tourists away.

The soul of Korea was lost in transformation. Korea can never retrieve its past. It will have a tough time bringing its rivers back to life. But, there is a remedy in sight. The beauty is that it is already here. Tourists visit destination based on word-of-mouth. Western tourists will only come to Korea based on how it is advertised by other westerners. English teachers are Northeast Asia’s version of the backpacker communities seen in Southeast Asia. There is a fleet of English teachers that travel across Korea every month. We blow our paychecks exploring new sites and drinking at nightclubs. We contribute to the economy and “discover” remote areas that are off the tourist loop. We take lessons in Taekwando and Hopkido. We experiment with Asian medicine and take classes in Korean yoga. Most of us explore Korean food and some even study its culinary arts. These are some of the images that get the attention of westerners. English teachers tell stories about Korea that motivate other westerners to visit. If Korea really wants to attract westerners it should take advantage of the abundant resource of young English teachers.




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