The goal: some new sightsThe Seoul City Tour Bus program recently began offering a new route, the World Cup Tour, to better serve sightseers in anticipation of the soccer championships to begin in May. On Tuesday, the fifth day that the comfy buses plied the route, 14 people boarded the 10 a.m. bus at the point of origin in Gwangwhamun, downtown Seoul. The bus was bound for nearly 20 points of interest around the city, including the Yeouido Boat Terminal, Yongsan Electronic Shopping Town and, of course, the World Cup Stadium.
Nine of the passengers were senior volunteers for the World Cup games, and had free coupons for the ride. The onboard guide, Lee Ji-yeon, said the low turnout of paying riders wasn't unusual. "Weekday mornings are always slow," she explained. "But on weekends and holidays, people are waiting in lines to get on the bus; there are some foreign tourists, but most are Koreans from all over the country."
A guide with foreign language skills like Ms. Lee always rides along on the tours. But snazzy headphones in front of each seat make live guides superfluous. The headsets play recorded narrations in English, French, Japanese or Chinese, providing information that's detailed, listener-friendly and full of interesting trivia about the stops, facts that many Koreans may not even know.
When the bus nears Sinchon, the recording says: "Sinchon in Chinese characters means new village. This is where Western civilization was first introduced to Korea, at the end of the 19th century. All the latest trends of culture and fashion can be found here." Near Dongdaemun Market, it says: "Dongdaemun has 27,000 small retailers in 32 big warehouse-like buildings. This is a fashion lover's dream, where every style can be found, from hip-hop to traditional, with department store quality at discount prices."
A Japanese tourist from Tokyo, Watai Kuni, was taking the bus to the World Cup Stadium to compare it with Japan's Yokohama Stadium. He was impressed with the tour, which he called very well-organized. "I've taken many bus tours in Japan, America and Canada, but this one beats them by far," he said.
Soon, each of the World Cup Tour buses will be equipped with television monitors, which will let soccer fans keep up with the games while they ride. Meanwhile, before the tournament, the monitors will show old stills and video of the stops along the trip.
The fare for the tours recently rose from 5,000 won to 8,000 won ($6) - still a good deal, considering the convenience and amenities. If you want to access more routes, a Day Pass, at 12,000 won, lets you ride either the World Cup Tour, Palace Tour and Night Tour (Course B) or the Downtown Tour, Palace Tour and Night Tour (Course A).
After passing through the bustling part of the city and crossing the Han River, the bus approached the National Assembly building and its landmark dome. Two middle-aged women readied to get off. "I saw on the news the other day that Assembly officials decided to open their library to the public," one woman said. "I'm curious what it'll look like, I've never been inside."
Most of the other passengers got off near the end of the tour, at the War Memorial near the Yongsan Army Base. The bus completed the loop in a little less than than three hours, longer than scheduled, due to traffic snarls.
Unsurprisingly, heavy traffic is the most common complaint the tour company gets. One Korean rider wrote on the company's Web site: "We were stuck in the same spot for almost half an hour. I felt like we were wasting our trip." Another passenger took issue with the sound track: "Please reconsider the kind of music you play on the bus. When I went on a palace tour last week, the driver was playing English pop songs, and American couples were giggling about it. It would be much nicer to play traditional music, which would create a better atmosphere and would surely be preferred by the foreign tourists."
The bus was capably driven by Song Jeon-ho, who said he used to drive shuttles for department stores. He said that most foreign passengers get off at either the 63 Building or Yeouido Park. "But after the pedestrian bridge to Seonyu Island in the Han River is completed in May, I think it will become the most popular site."
Buses for each of the routes make their first departures every day at 9 a.m. from in front of the Dong Wha Duty Free Shop in Gwanghwamun in downtown Seoul. The buses stop at each of the points every 30 minutes. The last World Cup Tour bus leaves at 5 p.m., and the last Night Tour bus at 9 p.m. Every day through March 15, the first 130 passengers riding on the World Cup Tour buses will get gifts. For more information, call Honeymoon Travel at 02-777-7788.
by Park Soo-mee