A first for tourism, and hopefully not the last

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A first for tourism, and hopefully not the last

The German-born head of Korea’s state-funded tourism agency said his two main goals are to turn Korea into “Asia’s Switzerland” and to succeed as the country’s first foreign-born president of a major public firm.

“Korea has the potential to draw tens of millions of tourists annually,” said Lee Charm, head of the Korea Tourism Organization, in an interview at his downtown Seoul office Friday. “It has everything to satisfy tourists, such as urban culture, shopping, food and scenic places,” he added. The German-born naturalized Korean was appointed to his current post last July.

Around 7.8 million foreigners visited Korea last year, the first time ever that the number of inbound tourists to the country topped the seven million mark. Lee said, however, that compared with the 18 million tourists who visited Hong Kong and the 12 million who traveled to Singapore last year, Korea still needs to do more.

Marketing is key to attracting more foreign tourists, he said. As such, his agency launched the “Korea Be Inspired” campaign to promote Korea’s unique appeal. Lee says the current campaign has proven more successful than its predecessor, “Korea Sparkling,” which brought up images of “cheap sparkling wine” for many Western travelers.

He also explained that the three key words in the KTO’s public relations strategy are “gi,” which translates as “universal energy” and is widely used in martial arts like taekwondo, “heung,” an intrinsic sense of joy, and “jeong,” or caring for others and putting them before oneself.

Lee said his personal background has greatly helped his work at the KTO. The 56-year-old, whose original name is Bernhard Quandt, came to Korea in 1978 to attend a religious event. He forfeited his German citizenship to become a naturalized Korean in 1986 and has since taken on a number of different roles, from teaching German to consulting, acting and hosting an English radio talk show. He is fluent in Korean, English and German.

“[My appointment] shows that Korean society has become more open. It gave a shock to foreigners,” he said. “They are giving a new look to Korea. In that sense, what I say abroad draws more attention.”

Lee stressed, however, that Korea’s tourism industry can’t grow with efforts only by himself and his agency.

“I am not a magician. It is important to enhance public awareness of the tourism industry for its full-scale growth,” he said. “Public perception should be changed.”

He said Korea, focusing on developing automobile, shipbuilding, IT and other sectors, had not regarded tourism as an important industry until recently. “We should present a vision that ... tourism is an industry with great potential for development,” he said. “My job is to make many people share the vision and help it become realized as a national policy.”

Lee admitted that it is a heavy burden being the first foreign-born figure to assume such a high-level post at a state-funded organization. “I will have to strive not to make this first case in history the last one,” he said, adding he wants to pave the way for more people of foreign origin to work at government agencies here. Yonhap

About 100 foreign advisers for Korean tourism, including ambassadors in Korea from 16 countries, tour Naganeupseong Folk Village in Suncheon, South Jeolla, on Sunday at the invitation of the Korea Tourism Organization. [NEWSIS]

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