While North American East Asiaphiles continue to flow in a steady stream to Japan and China, the Japanese and Chinese are going to South Korea — almost for the same reasons.
For example, Japan’s renowned wabi-sabi rusticity, refined and popularized by the Japanese tea ceremony, remains at the heart of South Korea’s indigenous, countryside aesthetics. Similarly, South Korea is a repository of quintessential Confucianism, classical Buddhism and Taoist teachings made nearly extinct during China’s Cultural Revolution. It’s also home to a world center in traditional Eastern medicine. South Korea’s contemporary shopping is world-class, as are its hotels, golf and honeymoon destinations.
All these findings and more beg the question: “What do the Japanese and Chinese know about South Korea that North Americans don’t ... as of yet?”
A World-Class Destination
Historically speaking, folks from China and Japan have been going to South Korea for centuries and continue to go, periodic headlines of long-standing enmity notwithstanding.
Internally, South Korea has gone through a period of recovery, gathering international goodwill, developing a significant, professional inbound tourism industry and positive national self-esteem.
Beginning with its successful staging of the 1988 Summer Olympic Games and the 2002 World Cup Soccer finals, South Korea has made huge investments in infrastructure by improving roads, upgrading efficient public transportation systems and building super deluxe hotels. Its investments in social capital as well — learning and using English and strengthening the monetary exchange rate — meet, if not exceed, contemporary Western tourism standards. South Korea is a snap to visit for first-time and seasoned East Asian travelers. It’s safe, full of English-language signs and has 24-hour interpretation and help services — even taxis have interpretation services during certain hours.
Selling South Korea
The nonprofit Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) has begun an aggressive campaign to promote the country as a vibrant modern nation, rich in indigenous tangible and intangible cultural assets, pristine natural resources, abundant recreation facilities and sophisticated contemporary lifestyles. Envision a full spectrum, from cosmopolitan architecture and museum collections, haute couture and cuisine — by both Eastern and Western standards — to the most well-preserved traditional countryside villages, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, national parks and recreation facilities. So much of South Korea can be seen with so little travel commitment. From Seoul to Busan, South Korea’s largest port city, for example, the trip can be as short as three hours by high-speed train or about five hours by intercity bus.
While clients may want to compare Korea to China and Japan, the destination proudly stands on its own — and has done so for centuries.
“Once [U.S. tourists] travel to Korea, they’ll find a whole different country [from China or Japan,]” said Jae Kyong Lee, director of the KTO office in Los Angeles. “Korea is also a nice hub for travel to other countries in Asia.”
What to Do
South Korea is home to a number of fascinating destinations and stops; here are just a few:
Clients interested in exploring South Korea’s Confucian roots may consider a trip to the royal ancestral shrine at Jongmyo in Seoul. Also listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site, the shrine continues to stage formal public Confucian rites regularly for tourists, school children and other locals alike.
A trip into the heart of South Korea’s countryside, about a three-hour train ride from Seoul, takes visitors to the Dodongseowon Confucian Academy in Andong. The academy dates back hundreds of years when retired philosophers taught the requisite Chinese and Korean classics and poetics to young men destined to become civil administrators.
Korea’s version of Buddhism in action is easily accessed through a very well organized nationwide Temple Stay program. During single- or multiple- night residencies, or even day visits, tourists are exposed to the lifestyle and beliefs of Korea’s celibate, vegetarian monastic population in city and remote hermitage facilities.
A leisurely early morning stroll through Jogye-sa in the heart of Seoul reveals everything from the bustling to contemplative. It’s also a perfect time to shop for the traditional gray robes and pants worn by all Buddhist monks and nuns in South Korea.
Clients curious about the ancient traditional Chinese medicine can visit South Korea’s huge herbal marketplaces, agricultural regions and many festivals. Seoul’s pungent and bustling Gyeongdong Market district has more than 1,000 shops and is just a short metro ride away from celebrated royal palaces.
In Seoul’s countryside, only about three hours by intercity bus from the city, is the world’s top center for growing insam(ginseng). The Geumsan Insam Festival attracts crowds from as far away as Europe with its farms, museums, exhibition halls for displays as well as outdoor concerts and great food.
Bee-lines of Japanese craft aficionados connect with the studios and galleries of many of South Korea’s accomplished traditional artists. In the case of ceramics, these include the Icheon World Ceramic Center and pottery village full of buncheong ware and celadon kilns and host to the annual World Ceramic Exposition.
Hadong, site of the annual Wild Tea Cultural Festival, attracts many with its famous jaksal-cha tea and rustic maksabal pottery in Jirisan’s tea growing region.
Kimchee-lovers will appreciate a visit to Seoul’s Onggi Museum and various shops full of dark earthenware used for making and storing soybean paste and fermented vegetables. Here, prices for beautiful traditional and contemporary ceramic ware are significantly lower than in Kyoto.
South Korea’s romance with the written word through brush and moveable type and the visual and traditional courtly performing arts are evident in modern public and private museums and world-class concert halls.
KTO’s Los Angeles office boasts several inbound destination experts ready to work with agents for private, business and incentive travel. They can easily connect agents with U.S.- and South Korea-based wholesalers to create lucrative set and custom tour packages, including some that feature the 2008 Beijing Olympics.