There’s no place like home...staysMiyoko, a Japanese college student, was helping to prepare kimchi at Park Sang-mi’s apartment in the southeast area of Seoul.
As she mixed salt and red pepper paste in with the cabbage, Miyoko lobbed questions at Ms. Park -- such as how much pickled shrimp should be added.
Miyoko doesn’t consider the task of kimchi-making a chore. Rather, during her visit to Seoul last year she sought to engage in such daily duties. So she skipped the hotel, motel and yeogwan routes and opted for someone’s home instead.
“I plan on staying at Ms. Park's apartment for a month so I can learn more about Korean culture,” says Miyoko.
Since last year’s World Cup tournament, homestays have become an established tourist activity among visiting foreigners.
In short order, about 20 agencies have cropped up that link foreign visitors with homestay sponsors like Ms. Park. Among the better known outfits are Labo Korea, the Institute for Language Excursion and Exchange and the Seoul government.
The agencies reported more than 900 homestay visitors last year, a 23 percent increase from 2001. This year Labo Korea has already reserved homestays for 1,000 foreign visitors. Approximately 3,500 households across the country offer homestays, mainly in larger cities.
“We dress our visitors in traditional attire and play traditional folk games,” says the homestay hostess Kim So-young, 34. “We treat our guests like our own family.”
The Korean hostess says she feels proud to introduce Korean culture to foreigners, and in the process straighten out any wrong impressions they may have formed about her homeland. Several homestays even boast their own Web site.
Since getting married in 1999, Lee Jong-hee, 36, has hosted 50 foreign guests.
To offer their guests a window on Korean culture, host families have taken them to traditional outdoor markets and to street rallies during the World Cup tournament.
Recently the Lees held a farewell party at their apartment for two young German visitors, Yan and Jani. Korean cuisine was the mainstay, though the Germans added a box of chocolate and wine to the menu.
Although the number of foreign visitors seeking homestays has grown over the years, its influence on the tourism economy is small. According to the Seoul government, only 1.7 percent of the 5.3 million visitors to Seoul last year used homestays. Besides the modest income a family receives, there’s another advantage to providing homestays, says Kim Ho-sook with Labo Korea: “The host’s children can experience foreign cultures and learn to live with someone else.”
Younger foreigners find homestay attractive since it costs from 30,000 to 50,000 won ($25 to $40) per night, and includes a lesson on local culture along with bed, bathtub and breakfast. At least one member of the family speaks some English. For more information, visit www. labo.or.kr, www.lex.or.kr or www.homestay korea.com.
by Sohn Hae-yong