Foreign visitors to reach 8.8 million
By Lee Hyo-sik
South Korea has emerged as one of the world’s major tourist destinations this year, at least among Chinese, Japanese and other Asian visitors, on the back of a weak Korean won against other currencies and the growing popularity of Korean pop culture in the region.
Throughout the year, the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), the Visit Korea Committee and other state-run tourism promotion agencies, as well as municipal administrations have made all-out efforts to attract as many foreign tourists as possible to earn hard currency, create jobs and improve its international profile.
Their endeavors have paid off as substantially higher numbers of foreigners have flooded popular tourist spots in and out of Seoul and spent billions of dollars to buy luxury brand goods, souvenirs and other Korean products.
Korea plans to promote itself as an attractive shopping spot and offer a wide range of incentives, especially targeting foreign patients who come here to receive medical treatment and other healthcare-related services.
The nation launched the “2010-2012 Visit Korea Year” campaign in 2009 in a bid to attract 10 million foreign tourists annually by 2012, increase tourism revenue to $10 billion and make it onto the list of the top 20 countries in surveys of tourism competitiveness.
The government had initially expected about 8.5 million inbound foreign tourists to visit in 2010. But KTO and the Visit Korea Committee have recently raised the target to 8.8 million, as more Chinese and other Asian visitors, with rising income levels resulting from strong economic rebounds back home, travel to Asia’s fourth largest economy.
Additionally, the popularity of Korean pop culture, or “hallyu,” among Asian youth has helped to draw more tourists to Korea.
A KTO spokesman said if the current trend continues the number of foreign tourists will likely exceed 8.8 million by the end of the year, up 12.5 percent from last year’s 7.82 million.
Surging Chinese tourists
A surging number of Chinese visitors have made tourism officials here more upbeat about exceeding their initial goal. These days, it is not uncommon to spot groups of Chinese tourists shopping at department stores and buying souvenirs from street vendors in downtown Seoul.
In July, the government decided to loosen visa restrictions for Chinese visitors to attract higher numbers of wealthy consumers from the world’s fastest growing economy. More one-year multiple entry visas have been issued to Chinese travelers.
Many municipalities have also introduced an array of support measures and held promotional events to attract Chinese and other Asian tourists aiming to revitalize their regional economies.
Seoul City plans to expand the amount of accommodation as part of efforts to attract 5 million Chinese tourists per year by 2014. It will add some 16,000 rooms by 2014 by enacting special legislation to promote the construction of private accommodation facilities.
Korea attracted nearly 60,000 Chinese visitors during the Chinese National Day holiday from Oct. 1 to 7, up 30 percent from the same period last year. The number of Chinese tourists to Korea is expected to soar to 1.88 million in 2010, from 1.21 million last year, accounting for 21.4 percent of the total.
KTO projected the number of Japanese tourists will reach 3.02 million this year, accounting for 34.3 percent of the total, while putting American and Taiwanese visitors at 650,000 and 410,000 each.
“Despite the worldwide economic downturn, a number of Chinese tourists came here and spent record amounts of money in 2009. The trend is continuing this year on the easing of the nation’s visa rules for Chinese nationals and a stronger yuan,” a KTO spokesman said. “But we think this shows that our intensive marketing activities designed to attract visitors from the world’s fastest growing economy have finally paid off.”
Shopping & medical tourism
In 2011, Korea will continue to highlight major shopping benefits to attract more foreign visitors, particularly those from Japan, China and other Asian nations, he said.
Under the slogan titled “Korea Grand Sale 2011,” which will begin on Jan. 10, 2011 and last through Feb. 28, more than 14,000 department stores, shopping malls, hotels, restaurants, theme parks and other hospitality-related establishments will participate in the nation’s largest shopping-oriented tourism festival across the country, the Visit Korea committee said.
Under the nationwide campaign, those who plan to visit Korea can obtain a wide range of discount coupons and membership cards, which can be used at retailers, restaurants and other businesses here, from the overseas branches of the Korea Tourism Organization, cultural centers, travel agencies and airline firms.
“Over the years, an increasing number of Chinese and Japanese tourists have come here to shop for a variety of consumer products. The Korea Grand Sale is a nationwide shopping tourism celebration during which foreigners can enjoy shopping, traditional food, comfortable hotel accommodations, cultural shows and other tourism services at lower prices, a committee spokeswoman said.
Korea also plans to promote medical tourism among foreign patients in cooperation with local hospitals. “Singapore and Thailand have been successful in drawing patients from other counries by offering high-quality medical services at affordable prices. Given the competitiveness of Korea’s healthcare service industry, we can emerge as a medical hub for all nationals if we market ourselves effectively and ease regulations on hospitals,” the KTO spokesman said.
KTO has signed business cooperation agreements with several local health clinics, while inviting foreign ambassadors and other non-Korean opinion leaders residing here to a range of events to promote the excellence of domestic healthcare facilities and medical personnel.
“We had initially aimed to attract a total of 10 million visitors by 2012. But thanks to significant improvements in Korea’s image abroad and other favorable factors, we decided to achieve the goal by 2011. We will continue to beef up overseas marketing activities, upgrade the competitiveness of the domestic tourism infrastructure and implement other measures to turn the nation into a global tourism hub,” the KTO spokeswoman said.