Alex Trettin // © 2016 Alex Trettin
Feature image (above): Trettin, who is based in Tacoma, Wash., specializes in tours to South Korea. // © 2016 iStock
A massive fan of Asian cuisine, Tacoma, Wash.-based travel agent Alex Trettin spent a few years teaching English in China after university, taking time to explore much of Asia while living abroad. Today, he’s capitalizing on those experiences, specializing in Asia vacations for clients while working as the president of Travel Leaders – Travel Center Inc. in Tacoma.
We spoke with Trettin about South Korea, a destination he sells regularly to clients, and learned more about the industry vet’s favorite destinations, food and hotels in the country.
Why might South Korea appeal to U.S. leisure travelers as a vacation destination?
It has amazing food, for sure. That’s a constant throughout the trips I put together for clients. And, of course, the foreign nature and depth of Korean culture is a draw. South Korea is also an awesome destination for active adventure folks who like outdoor activities such as mountain biking, skiing and hiking. Those things are very popular in South Korea. In that sense, it’s very Westernized.
What are some highlights you recommend for clients visiting Seoul?
If someone is going to Seoul and they are adventure-oriented, the DMZ — the demilitarized zone — is a popular thing to see. So you can go up to the DMZ and look through binoculars at the North Koreans, and then in conjunction with that you could go river rafting on the Hantangang River. As many Americans did, I grew up with the television series “M*A*S*H,” so the whole Korean War conflict, and how much North Korea is in the news, often makes the DMZ a must-do for tourists.
There are also cool shopping districts and markets in Seoul. There’s the Gwangjang market and food street, where you can sample all sorts of different, wonderful Korean cuisine. The museums are also interesting. A lot of people visit Imperial Palace Seoul; if antiquities are your thing, then you have to go. That’s one of the draws for Korea. But I’m more into contemporary culture and food than I am into antiquity.
How do you steer clients toward those contemporary cultural experiences?
I try to get them to eat foreign foods and stay in foreign hotels. I’m a huge proponent of private tours with a local tour guide that can get you into the local scene a little bit. We usually book private day tours with companies such as Travel Bound and Viator.
Are there some destinations you recommend outside of Seoul?
If you’re going to do two places in Korea, I would recommend Seoul and Busan. Busan is a coastal city and just a great place to visit. There are some antiquities there and some cultural heritage places to visit, and it also has a wonderful seafood scene. I recommend people stay two nights there.
Really, a first-time visit to South Korea might be four nights in Seoul, two nights on Jeju island, two nights in Busan and then back to Seoul. Jeju is really geared toward tourism. It’s where many Koreans go for vacation, so it’s certainly interesting in that way. There are great hotels and beaches, and many interesting hikes to go on. And again, there’s amazing seafood.
Do you have some favorite hotel properties in the country that you often recommend?
When I send people to Korea, I like to book them in properties from Lotte Hotel & Resorts. It’s a Korean chain, you get a consistent product throughout the country, and there are a variety of hotels to fit every budget. Plus, clients get more of a Korean experience in a Korean-owned hotel.
Tell me a little more about what you like about Korean food.
The umami, the succulent flavors, the kimchi and the spicy garlic cabbage. When you’re in Seoul, you have to go to a Korean barbecue restaurant. The guides we set folks up with often take care of that and make sure people have a great Korean barbecue experience. When you go to Korean barbecue, you’ll probably have some of what we call the “meat sweats” and will need to wear pants with an expandable waistline, because you just keep eating and eating. Usually, it turns into quite a feast.
The fresh seafood in Busan is awesome. Going to the seafood market, picking out your seafood and then having the vendors prepare it is a really cool experience. Bibimbap is also always a real crowd-pleaser — that’s one of my favorite Korean dishes.