As economic storms continue to batter the industrialized world, Korea is pinning its economic hopes on tourism, and Americans just so happen to top Korea’s most-wanted visitors list.
"Tourism is the breakthrough industry of the 21st century," said Seoul mayor Se-hoon Oh, speaking at the annual Asia Pacific Urban Tourism Conference in Seoul. "We are replacing smokestack cities with tourism cities that are clean, attractive, culturally vibrant and fun to visit. We want 12 million tourists annually by 2012."
Hitting the 12 million mark would nearly double the 6.4 million leisure travelers who visited Korea in 2007. The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) is counting on cultural travel to spark initial interest and word of mouth to fan the flames.
"Korea has a strong but relatively unknown culture that is starting to attract attention around the world," Oh said. "We don’t have the marketing budget of Thailand or France. We are building a buzz that draws visitors to Korea in ways that advertising can’t."
Word of mouth is probably a smart tactic since about 70 percent of Korea’s inbound tourism is FIT. The KTO is trying to start the buzz on multiple levels.
The KTO and the Seoul Tourism & Marketing Office (STMO) are backing an annual international conference on urban tourism to build credibility.
"Conferences attract opinion leaders in an international community that is hard to penetrate," explained STMO president Samuel Koo.
The city also launched the annual Seoul Tourism Awards to boost its travel industry profile.
Winners included Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, for creating the strategic development plan that is turning Dubai into a tourism powerhouse; Hong Kong for best sightseeing city; the Sapporo (Japan) Snow Festival for best city tourism program; and DiscoverHongKong.com for best city tourism promotion Web site.
The KTO is also sponsoring fam trips focusing on lesser-known products. Earlier this year, the agency introduced a new medical travel program to travel agents in the Los Angeles area.
"We can’t afford to buy effective advertising in the U. S.," explained Gwan-Hyung An, marketing director of the Gwangju City Tourism Division. "Fam tours give us a more personal connection to people who can spread our message better than we can."
What’s the message? Tradition is alive and well in the 21st century.
Seoul has transformed a stagnant, junk-filled drainage ditch into the sparkling Cheonggyecheon Stream, lined with willows, flowering vines and brilliant lilies. A similar transformation is under way along the banks of the Han River that flows through the city.
In Gwangju, local tour offerings run the gamut from a Kia automobile assembly plant staffed almost entirely by robots to an easy walk up Mt. Mudeung. Throngs of families stroll through forests of chestnut and maple trees with stops to visit temples, sip tea, buy souvenirs and feast on grilled chicken.
Korea’s vibrant art scene has taken over Choongjangro, better known as Art Street. Block after block of galleries, studios, and art supply stores carry everything from traditional hair brushes to the latest inkjet printers.
Foodies can munch their way through acres of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish at the traditional Yangdong Market. Less than an hour away, village farmers in Cheongpyeong still ferment soy sauce, pepper paste and bean paste in huge ceramic pots sitting outdoors.
Like whiskey, the price increases with age. A quart of twelve year-old soy sauce costs about $135. Expect to pay $170 for a quart of pepper sauce that has been mellowing in the sun, rain and snow for two years.
"There is a real appreciation for tradition in Korea," said Min-gyeon Ko, who runs her parents’ fermented food operation. "Everyone has high-speed Internet at home, GPS in their cars and McDonald’s if they’re in a hurry to eat. But we still value tradition. People are willing to pay what it takes to keep the best of the old ways."