By Kim Tong-hyung
South Koreans are serious about their reputation for hospitality, but a recent survey of foreign tourists shows that Western and Asian visitors rate the level of friendliness differently.
The survey by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute (KCTI), participated in by 5,800 tourists from 16 countries during the first half of the year, found Germans to be most impressed by Korean hospitality, with 79.9 percent of them saying "yes" to the question "Are South Koreans friendly?"
About 78 percent of French tourists also thought Koreans were friendly enough, followed by 77.1 percent of Britons, 73.2 percent of Canadians, 73.1 percent of Americans and 71.4 percent of Australians.
However, the experience of Asian visitors seemed to be quite another matter altogether. Tourists from Thailand and Japan were among the more generous among Asian travelers, and yet less than 49 percent of each group rated Koreans as friendly.
Less than 33 percent of Taiwanese visitors thought Koreans were friendly, and the number was around 44 percent for tourists from Hong Kong and Singapore.
It's debatable whether the gap in views is more reflective of a genuine difference in experience or whether the Korean way of hospitality is less exotic to people from other Asian nations who share similar cultural backgrounds.
Overall, 56.9 percent of foreign travelers were in approval of Korean hospitality, KCTI said.
"There are more repeat visitors among Asian tourists, such as the Japanese, than Western tourists, and that would mean differences in the wealth of experience," said Suh Sang-min, who has been teaching Korean to Japanese expatriates and travelers at a language institute in downtown Seoul over the past three years.
"Asian travelers are likely to be more specific about the purposes of their visits, whether they are shopping, leisure or business activities, so this has to be put into consideration. That said, if you ask a Japanese tourist or any other person from an Asian nation whether he or she thinks Koreans appear friendlier to Westerns, I would imagine a lot of them saying yes."
Western travelers picked the hospitality of locals as their most distinctive impression of Korea, according to the KCTI survey.
However, 68.9 percent of the Japanese travelers picked "good food" as the biggest attraction of Korea, while 67.7 percent of the Thai travelers said they were most impressed by the "cultural and historical assets."
About 69 percent of Hong Kong travelers picked "shopping environment" as the best thing about Korea, while 49 percent of Taiwanese travelers said they were most impressed about the "clean streets."
About 55 percent of the foreign travelers overall picked shopping as the main motive of their visit to Korea, while 43 percent of them said that cheap traveling expenses were also a factor.
However, only 20 percent of them were motivated by cultural and historical sites, while only 10 percent said they were drawn by the leisure attractions.
Among the shopping items, nearly 39 percent of the travelers said they were looking for food products first, while cosmetics, clothes, oriental medicine and kimchi, or the spicy fermented cabbage that is a staple of Korean cooking, were also high on shopping lists.