Guesthouses in Bukchon
For Bukchon, 2011 was the year of the guesthouse. Guesthouses spread rapidly throughout the area throughout the year to the surprise of residents. The spread has moved to the Seochon area to the west of Gyeongbuk Palace. Other central areas of Seoul have also seen a steady rise in the number of guesthouses.
The rapid spread is linked to one of the most serious problems in the Korean tourist industry: the lack of affordable hotels in Seoul. The increase in the number of foreign tourists in recent years has caused a shortage in hotel rooms. The natural laws of supply and demand kick in, causing a continuous rise in room rates. Many tourists are now priced out of better hotels and the number of affordable ones is limited. Many affordable hotels are old and vary greatly in quality.
Enter guesthouses. They offer an attractive solution to the hotel problem. Existing houses can be easily converted to guesthouses by adding bathrooms and other facilities. Owners of the guesthouses, meanwhile, can make a steady income on their investment in real estate because the short supply of hotel rooms in Seoul ensures a steady flow of customers. Before apartments became the dominant form of living, Koreans often rented out rooms and are used to the idea of having other people in their house.
For tourists, guesthouses, most of which are traditional Korean-style hanok, are more attractive than a sterile room in an aging third-rate hotel. Most hanok guesthouses are in remodeled buildings and offer tourists a chance to ``experience Korean culture." Owners live in the houses or nearby and offer a more personalized service than a hotel. Though less private than a hotel, guesthouses are cheaper and offer a more attractive tourist experience.
The idea of staying in a room in a private house is not new to Korea. In Korea, ``minbak," or rural guesthouses, have long been popular in tourist resort areas, particularly in the summer and fall. College students have traditionally used minbak for group trips. More recently, pensions have become popular for families in resort areas. Owners make steady, though often seasonal, income from the property they own or rent.
Guesthouses in Seoul are similar to those in many other parts of the world. The facilities offer an economical and attractive alternative to hotels, particularly for younger budget travelers. Seen from this perspective, they are a positive development for tourism in Korea.
For Bukchon and Seochon, however, the rapid spread of guesthouses is problematic. For owners, hanok guesthouses take on a profitable use that gives them new economic value as a real estate commodity, which ensures that the houses will be maintained. This new economic incentive gives new life to larger hanok that are expensive to maintain. The increased foot traffic also helps owners of businesses in commercial areas.
For others, the spread of guesthouses brings problems. They produce more garbage. Increased foot traffic in otherwise residential areas causes more noise, particularly at night. Long-term residents who are used to seeing only neighbors in alleys feel uncomfortable with strangers are walking around. From another perspective, the spread of guesthouses only fuels the rise in property values and rents, which drives long-term residents and businesses out. Taken together, residents are concerned that the spread of guesthouses will, if left unchecked, have a negative impact on the neighborhood.
Guest houses now play an important role in the tourist industry in Seoul, particularly as long as the shortage of hotel rooms continues. The problem with guesthouses in Bukchon and Seochon, however, is the speed of the spread. These areas have traditionally been residential and in the case of Bukchon, the city of Seoul has invested large sums of money to preserve hanok in the area.
This effort has now spread to Seochon. An important goal is to preserve the residential character of these areas. Real estate speculation and creeping commercialization have damaged the sense of community in Bukchon. In this context, the rapid spread of guest houses is a sign of continued commercialization and loss of community.
The easiest way to deal with the problem is to regulate guesthouses more strictly. Regulation in the form of building restrictions, however, is what caused the shortage of hotel rooms in the first place. Rather than regulate through decree, the city and tourist authorities should support the development of a system of self-regulation that focuses on developing standards of quality and positive relations with the neighborhood community.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at email@example.com.