Tourists ride the Artee pedicab as they tour around Changdeok Palace, Jongno-gu, central Seoul. The pedicab business won the grand prize at the 2013 competition for "creative tourism business model" run by the Korea Tourism Organization. / Courtesy of Artee
By Park Jin-hai
Along the Bukchon Hanok Village, where traditional Korean houses and small alleys dating back to the Joseon Kingdom(1392-1910) stand, runs a blue pedicab.
"This area is called Bukchon. It was the center of old Seoul. New Seoul is much bigger," says the driver, Lee In-jae, 28, founder of Ride Artee.
Tourists on the ride by his guide slowly go around the beautiful neighborhood, including some hidden tourist spots like Bokjeong Well which supplied water only to royal palaces in the past.
Artee pedicab is a venture firm that was honored to receive the top prize at the 3rd competition for the "creative tourism business model," run by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) in May 2013.
Ride Artee offers two routes in central Seoul. The History Course takes passengers around historical attractions in Bukchon and Seochon, while the Samcheong-dong Romance Course takes couples on a date around Samcheong-dong, filled with galleries, small unique shops and restaurants. Then, there is a Free Course, where the passengers can actually design their own destinations around the downtown.
As the winner, Lee's business received fund to grow the two-men venture into more like a proper business. Thanks to the support, it registered as a corporation in September 2013, and from 400 up to 800 tourists use his service on a weekly basis. Among his customers, some 20 percent are foreign tourists.
Lee's rickshaw, operated by pure muscle power, now operates six with eight more coming. It has some 14 cyclists.
Not only Lee, more than 1,000 contenders armed with innovative ideas participated for the competition in 2013. Over the three years since its inception in 2011, some 170 innovative firms have benefited from the program. Some 86 ideas have been transformed into bona-fide businesses, employing some 284 new workers.
A guest house in Hongdae, Seoul, My Hongdae, provides a place that provides customized cultural services. Not only does it supply accommodation, it holds cultural events and lectures on K-pop and K-game. For K-pop fans, they reserve audience seats for musical audition programs or give pick-up service shuttling concert halls and the guest house.
Others business ideas included taking pictures at local festivals and making them into postcards and providing an educating platform that will make immigrants women tour guides.
Until 2010, when foreign tourists have surged in number, the tourism industry has been recognized as mere a "service" than an "industry." The government's tourism policies were more like sets of regulations to control the industry, rather than nurturing the competitiveness of tourist resources.
Industry's infrastructure and incubating system for new ventures was not advanced as much as those of developed nations. Although fast developing information technology and smartphones have increased the demand for quality tourism information, the content of the tourism industry has lacked originality and failed to catch up with the changing trend in the tourism industry.
Then came a turnaround. Since 2010, tourism's effects on creating new jobs and added values, it has been highlighted. As the current government of Park Geun-hye focuses on "creativity economy," the tourist industry―in particular, "creative tourism" that nurtures ventures with creative ideas -- has been given more policy thrust by the government.
"Nurturing the potential of creative tourism industry by setting good venture models is the main purpose," said Lee Jin-sik, an official of the ministry of culture, sports and tourism, which in cooperation with KTO has held a competition annually to find tourist ventures with growth potential since 2011.
"The success of local tourist ventures will lead to boosting regional economy as well as giving more options and quality services to tourists," Lee added, commenting the idea of "creative tourism" has been aiming, at a recent panel to discuss what had to be done to future develop the sector.
The winners of the competition receive funds in the range of 30 million won to 50 million won to help them establish their own business. Training sessions to reinforce each business' potential, mentoring and consulting services follow. Once the new business has been successfully established, the top 15 will receive additional funds, so that the support will not be the one-time event.
However, concerns remain. Participants of the panel talk for the tourist ventures say that more should be done to support the startups in the tourism industry. "Every year, some 140 new businesses are added. To manage the firms continuously, we need a centralized center" said Kim Yoon-sup, president of Korea Guide.
Others voiced that since tourism infrastructures are under the local government's control, startups have hard time to get each local government's cooperation, asking for support from the government level.
Lee from the culture ministry said, the ministry is in talks to make a support center for tourist ventures and make it in the part of the cluster so that venture firms could find convergence with other industries such as contents industry.