Samuel Koo, President of Seoul
By Kwon Mee-yoo
Seoul needs an "After You" campaign to make foreign visitors feel more welcome, the city's top tour promoter said Friday.
"Koreans are the most hospitable people in the world but they are shy of showing this to people they meet for the first time," said Samuel Koo, CEO of the Seoul Tourism Organization (STO), in an interview The Korea Times.
Koo referred to the barrier that keeps Koreans from showing their true emotions to strangers as "thin ice."
He mentioned the "After You" campaign that was staged in Shanghai in preparation for the World Expo 2010 with a great success.
"Please, thank you and excuse me are the three magic phrases they need to know," Koo said as the theme of a campaign for Seoul and Korea.
Koo said that a "Be Kind to Visitors" campaign reflects what he felt after reading Korea's ranking in the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index compiled by the World Economic Forum.
Korea was ranked 31st overall, behind Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan in Asia, but performed poorly in travel and tourism, being ranked 114th among a total of 133 countries.
Koo started his career as a reporter and then worked as a senior official of the United Nations and UNICEF.
In May 2008, he became the first STO head, a joint venture company mostly funded by Seoul City.
"I've visited about 100 countries. Based on my experience, I can certainly tell what is attractive and what is not, what is delicious and what is not, and what is a bargain and what is not," Koo said.
"Seoul, until very recently, was not considered as a tourism destination. This is beginning to change. We've managed to put Seoul on the international tourism map.
"My special emphasis is on introducing iconic Korean food. It is not only competitive globally but also good, healthy and delicious. This coincides with the pan-national campaign to 'globalize' Korean food," he said.
Seoul is also proactively promoting medical tourism, mainly targeting Japanese, Chinese, Americans and Russians. He sees medical tourism as a real growth sector.
The STO has also been "doing spectacularly" in attracting international conventions to Seoul.
"There is a very important competition globally involving leading cities to attract all kinds of conventions," he said.
In the ranking of holding international conventions, Seoul was second in Asia, following Singapore, and seventh in the world.
He also emphasized exchanges with other Asian countries such as Japan and China. The STO is seeking exchanges of students with and trying to attract well-off, retired Chinese.
Koo thinks that Asian countries can cooperate more when it comes to tourism than compete. He even suggested a "Visit Each Other Year" in Asia.
"I think more and more Koreans should visit Japan and China, even in large numbers. Worrying about this sort of travel deficit is nonsense. I think for Korea, more people should go abroad than staying at home for the sake of keeping the national travel balance in the black," Koo said. "Student visits are very important as there is no better substitute than having children know about their neighboring countries."
The STO president said there was no one model city for Seoul. He has looked at the long term strategies of Singapore, and the success of Thailand in creating a relaxing mood despite political unrest.
"I wish we could learn the loving, practical attitude of Italians, how they love their heritage, preserve it well and, at the same time, live with it," he said. "I'd loved to learn from New York the true characteristics of being a true global metropolis."
However, he said Korea has many wonderful things such as prompt service. "We have tons of wonderful things going for us. So my job is not to be envious of others - of course, I have to constantly study and learn - but to know how we can package our attractive aspects and market them to foreigners," he said.
Koo suggested building more business-class hotels and differentiated Chinese restaurants in Seoul. For instance, the STO has signed an MOU with the Shanghai Tourism Board to co-invest in Chinese restaurants and business hotel chains in the Korean market.
He advised Seoulites to be kinder and gentler to draw more visitors from around the world.
"We should not be dismissive or highly selective in order to attract tourists," he said.