[OUTLOOK]Leisure industry lacks a heroFacing the dark prospects of the Korean economy, I began to think about who will be the most needed leader at this point. Many probably remember Kim Chul-ho, who led the MyungSung Group in the early 1980s. I think Mr. Kim is probably the most desirable person in our economy.
At the time he led the group, he had opened a new chapter in Korea’s leisure industry by introducing the condominium business. The Blue House, however, was displeased with Mr. Kim for some reason, and he lost his business and even served a prison term.
Mr. Kim was an extraordinary businessman. There are many different opinions about his capabilities, but he was undoubtedly a pioneer in Korea’s leisure industry. An obscure businessman, he came up with the idea of selling condominium memberships, a business that became the decisive factor in the nation’s land prices. He initiated the so-called “resort boom” in Korea, earning fame overnight.
Rumors spread about his sudden success. Some said the Blue House was backing his business, while others said the Unification Church was providing money. Some even called him the swindler of our time.
The president issued a special order to control his business, but the government had no legal grounds to regulate the new business concept of membership condominiums.
The government had to resort to encouraging the National Tax Service to act. Mr. Kim was first imprisoned for using private loans from loan sharks, as if using high-interest loans were a crime. Mr. Kim eventually became a political prisoner who was not in violation of any economic laws.
MyungSung Group collapsed overnight. Condominiums and country clubs were later sold at an extremely low price to Hanwha Group, comprising the conglomerate’s most valuable assets today.
What if Mr. Kim had continued his business successfully? At the time, his office was filled with miniatures conceptualizing various ideas, from golf courses to ski slopes. He also kept blueprints of theme parks and floating hotels.
He had plans to attract foreign investment; he was friendly with world-famous designers and architects who were not known in Korea at the time.
Upon closer inspection, Mr. Kim was probably moving too fast, and his business plans were too enormous to accomplish at the time. If he were running such a business today, it would have been perfect. But he was trying to do this 20 years ago, and he failed.
Since then, the second-generation owners of Korea’s large business groups have entered the leisure business, but no one has achieved what Mr. Kim did. That is why Korea, the world’s 11th-largest economy, has ended up with no decent leisure company.
Last year alone, Koreans spent nearly $10 billion on overseas travel. In 1977, Korea’s export goal was $10 billion, which it achieved in the same year. Today, Koreans are spending such a sum just for trips to other countries.
As more and more money has been spent on tourism outside Korea, even the deputy prime minister for the economy has stepped up and asked citizens to spend money in Korea during the Lunar New Year holidays.
If this trend continues, more and more of Koreans’ money will be spent overseas. We see no other way to meet the exponentially increasing demands in the leisure industry. It is still fortunate that Korea has many beautiful mountains, so that many Koreans are still going hiking here.
The government recently began considering easing regulations on businesses to boost investments, but it is a belated measure.
It is time to stop talking about the sense of incompatibility between social classes. It is time for the government, companies and consumers to respect the leisure industry as the essential one for the future.
We have been needing heroes in the IT and bioengineering industries, and the leisure industry is not an exception. When Korea’s leisure industry succeeds, it will not only accommodate Korean tourists, but also attract foreigners.
We need no more discussions. What we need so urgently is the awareness that the leisure industry can save the economy, and we should start acting now. After that is accomplished, tight regulations will then be eased, and we will see a hero emerge in the leisure industry.
We must attract Chinese tourists to our west coast and Japanese tourists to our south coast. We should place signs in Chinese and Japanese on every corner of our streets. We must use all business strategies to induce the rich Chinese and Japanese tourists to open their wallets in Korea.
Korea should create resort towns with international appeal. This is not a matter of trying to keep Korean tourists from going overseas.
It is a national agenda that will provide jobs ― the jobs that are disappearing from manufacturing industries. This is the new source of income for our economy.
* The writer is the CEO of the JoongAng Ilbo News Magazine. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Lee Chang-kyu