Catching a ride on the Korean waveAt Incheon International Airport’s arrival gate recently, 70 Chinese women, all wearing the same beige, oversized coat with an LG logo on the back, were waiting, which is what people usually do at airports.
But the women, mostly in their 20s and a few forty-somethings, seemed a little too excited to just be waiting for some long-lost relative. Their eyes darted around constantly as they clutched their digital cameras.
They took the perfunctory group photo, but none of the women budged from where they were standing. Then abruptly, they stampeded off, moving as one.
NRG, a Korean boy band, had just emerged from the airport exit. Soon, they were surrounded by the women, whose camera flashes started going off like lightning.
Even for stars accustomed to such treatment, it was a little overwhelming. One band member hid behind a photojournalist, and the band’s manager tried to get the women to stop. But these women had traveled a great distance to see their favorite band, and nothing was going to stop them. Some of the fans were so crazy about NRG that they had plastered their entire backpacks with the NRG boys’ faces.
Their obsession was fed by the Korea National Tourism Organization (KNTO), which put together the four-day trip. The organization is starting to capitalize on China’s fascination with Korean pop culture, a phenomenon called hanryu, or “Korean wave.”
KNTO has declared 2004 as the year of hanryu, and as part of its campaign, it introduced a new feature on its Web site earlier this week that gives information on about 40 sites where Korean television drama and movies were filmed, such as the setting of “Chihwaseon,” a Cannes award-winning film by director Im Kwon-taek, and the setting of the movie “Joint Security Area.” (The site is at www.visitkorea.or.kr.)
The organization recently finished shooting three TV commercials featuring Korean celebrities to air in other Asian countries, including China. It will also build a Korea Center in Beijing, which will promote tourism as well as educate the Chinese about Korea.
Hanryu started in 1999 in Taiwan and Hong Kong, after Korean pop artist Clone held a concert in Taiwan to unexpected raves. Since then, the Korean entertainment industry has explored other markets in Asia, such as China, Vietnam and, most recently, Japan.
“As the Korean entertainment industry, including television dramas, movies and K-pop, has garnered popular reviews overseas, fans in other Asian countries have increased in great numbers,” said You Jin-ho, a manager of the China team at the Tourism Organization.
Korea’s entry into the Chinese market came at an opportune time. “Before we look into hanryu, we have to approach the historical aspect of the time that China was going through,” Kang Hun, a mass media critic, said.
“China was in a period of change as they slowly adapted to capitalism. Yet Western mass media was having a hard time trying to connect with the Chinese. China still had a strong historical grudge against Japan, and so they settled for Korean media, which is hip, fresh and something they feel familiar with,” Mr. Kang said.
Japan was caught in the wave of hanryu last year. A Korean television drama created by Korean Broadcasting System titled “Winter Love Song” is one of the highest-rated dramas currently showing on NHK-Japan Broadcasting Corporation.
“Winter Love Song” is already for sale on DVD in Japan, and the heroine, Choi Ji-woo, has a new drama out, “Stairway to Heaven,” whose broadcast rights are currently being negotiated with Fuji TV, NHK, and television networks in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
Furthermore, Ms. Choi is planning to visit Shanghai for three days to promote “Stairway to Heaven” next month. Ms. Choi will also meet 500 Japanese fans in Seoul.
“Last year, we estimate 120,000 foreign tourists visited Namiseom in Gyeonggi province after seeing ‘Winter Love Song,’” Mr. You said.
As of November last year, Oedo Island in South Gyeongsang province, which was the setting for “Winter Love Song,” had the most foreign visitors, making up 17 percent of all tourists to Korea. The tea field at Boseong, South Jeolla province, which was the setting of the TV series “Summer Scent,” came in second with 15 percent.
According to KNTO, 180,000 Taiwanese tourists visited Seoul last year, a 50 percent increase from the year before, which is partly due to the wider availability of Korean shows in Asia.
“Most of the tourists visiting Seoul as a result of hanryu happen to be women in their mid-20s who have jobs to finance their own travel,” Mr. You said.
“We estimate that there are 300,000 visitors coming to Korea due to hanryu, but we’re hoping for a larger group in the future, as we see the teenagers of foreign countries as our potential visitors in the future,” he said.
The four-day tour for NRG fans is one of the tourist packages the organization offers. The only setback Mr. You mentioned was the cost, especially for Chinese fans, and the celebrities’ busy schedules.
“It would be great if we had such tourist packages for foreign fans like those for NRG, but you know how celebrities are,” Mr. You said. “They can’t plan even a week ahead.”
Japanese fans of “Winter Love Song know that all too well. Earlier this month, angry Japanese tourists, who had paid 2.5 million ($2,130) won for their trip, demanded their money back when the travel agency, Lotte Tours, failed to arrange a meeting with their idol, Ms. Choi, as promised. Ms. Choi’s agent, Sidus, said Lotte Tours and KNTO did not inform Ms. Choi earlier. She ended up meeting her fans at an island off Incheon.
The costs of the trips are high for the Chinese as well. The NRG trip was 500,000 won, which, according to Mr. You, is quite expensive for the average Chinese.
“A normal Chinese worker’s salary amounts to approximately 200,000 won per month, so this trip is worth more than their two-month salary,” Mr. You says.
But Jang Mong, 22, the chairwoman of NRG’s fan club in China, says it’s worth it.
Ms. Jang says she has a job but not a stable one, but she would come again just to see her favorite boy band.
“I have to spend most of my time trying to operate the fan club,” she said, which is why she works only part time. The fan club was formed in 2001.
Ms. Jang says in China, NRG has 4,000 registered fans, but unofficially there’s about 500,000 fans all over the country. However, Ms. Jang was vague about how she came up with the “unofficial” figure.
Other treats for the female Chinese tourists included a longer meeting with NRG members at a ski resort and a visit to the Korean pop television station to see other Korean artists perform. They also visited Dongdaemun, the center of the Korean fashion industry, as well as the World Cup stadium.
“By going to the studio, where they get to experience Korean pop music firsthand, we hope the tourist will get a better understanding of Korean pop,” Mr. You said.
Ms. Jang said hanryu is a fad among younger Chinese and that NRG played a big part in promoting hanryu.
Asking about what was special about them, Ms. Jang simply shrugged as if it was obvious and said, “Everything about them is special.”
by Lee Ho-jeong