Language Barrier Hobbles Foreigners
Joseph Landau, an American IT specialist who's been in Seoul for less than six months, remembers little skiing from his recent trip to Daemyung Resort. That's because guessing the tricky local roads, relying on body language for communication and getting stuck in a five-hour-long traffic jam on the way back home ended up leaving a stronger impression on the first-time traveler in Korea than the silver slopes.
``I couldn't be happier when I walked through my house door,'' said Landau, who took a weekend trip with his family to the resort about 50 miles east of Seoul in January. ``It was like returning to a familiar world again.''
Being relatively new here with almost no understanding of the Korean language yet, he said traveling outside of Seoul was a challenge and adventure.
``Getting around downtown districts are fine. I have almost no problem,'' said Landau. ``But exploring areas outside of my everyday destinations is a whole different story, mainly because of the language barrier and lack of signage.''
The U.S. expatriate apparently isn't the only one struggling with these problems, however, as the Korea Chamber of Commerce Industry (KCCI) said Tuesday that 35 percent of foreigners living here feel the same way.
The business lobby group surveyed 100 foreign business executives and found that 35 percent of them felt unpleasantly or troubled while traveling on the peninsula.
Language barriers turned out to be their biggest difficulty as nearly 27 percent pointed out the problem, while other said traffic congestion (20 percent), lack of signs (18 percent), high costs (17 percent) and poor services (12 percent) hobbled them the most.
``Many of these problems have been around for a long time. There have been repeated efforts to improve the situation, but they haven't been effective,'' said David Mason, a professor of Korean Tourism at Kyung Hee University, who singled out inconsistent signs as needing urgent improvement.
``Ticket offices for buses, train and booths at various facilities need to provide accurate information in English and other languages,'' said Mason, who has lived in Korea for 20 years. ``I read Hangul and even I often find the writing confusing.''
He stressed that local variety is excellent in food, drinks and cultural events, but one consistent system is necessary when it comes to putting up signs.
``There are too many local varieties. We need one national system,'' said Mason, an avid local traveler who has been everywhere from Mts. Jiri and Taebaek to 1,500 Buddhist temples countrywide.
Michael Conforme, president and CEO of managing consulting firm GCT, agreed, saying that improvements need to made, particularly on local roads connecting to the main highways.
``For a true adventurer who wants to get off the beaten path, finding the way around sign-less roads can be too tricky,'' he said.
Aside from the insufficient road signs, Les Edwards, the managing partner of advertising firm Lee & DDB, addressed the need for more reliable accommodation in provincial areas.
``It's important to have good, clean and affordable three-star hotels throughout the country, where a guest can expect to find Western style content like a bed and a coffee maker,'' said Edwards, who has lived in Seoul for more than a decade.
He said the country offers plenty of things to do at reasonable prices, so bettering travelers' convenience would help drum up the tourism industry.
The KCCI poll showed that 51 percent of respondents highlighted cultural sites as their most frequented tourism destination, followed by popular cities like Jeju and Gyeongju (35 percent), and golf course and theme parks (7 percent).
Sixty-eight percent of the foreigners said they would return to Korea for travel, while 26 percent weren't sure and 6 percent said they wouldn't.