[Viewpoint] Strategies for Korea’s tourism industry

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[Viewpoint] Strategies for Korea’s tourism industry

From Oct. 14 to 16, Korea held its second Formula One race in Yeongam, South Jeolla. The small city of 50,000 residents welcomed 16,000 visitors during the four-day event.

However, as soon as the racing ended, the visitors left. What would have happened if these visitors - who paid tens of thousands of won for tickets - were offered more than the race in the form of attractions or cultural experiences?

The high growth potential and job creation ability of the tourism industry offer solutions to Korea’s fragile job market and economic uncertainty. The industry is forecast to expand 7 percent annually this decade, rising to $11.1 billion in 2020 from $5.7 billion in 2010.

In 2010, Korea had 8.8 million foreign visitors, a threefold increase from 1990. But as the Formula One race suggests, the domestic tourism industry has not come close to its potential. In fact, per-visitor revenue dropped to $1,108 in 2010 from $1,203 in 1990, and according to the World Economic Forum, Korea’s travel and tourism competitiveness ranked 32 out of 139 countries.

Currently, there are seven trends in the tourism industry. The first is pop culture tourism. With the proliferation of media outlets around the world, a nation’s pop culture can become as well known as its architecture and art.

Second is experiential learning tourism for self-development and enrichment. For example, WOW Travel draws in some 30,000 people annually with tours of sites in Washington, such as the Capitol and the Library of Congress.

Another self-enhancement trend is mental restoration tourism, in which rest and mediation are sought to escape the pressures and stress of modern life. A famous location for such a vacation is the Osho International Mediation Resort located in Pune, India. Originally a place for a meditation community, Osho became a resort in 2002 and now has more than 60,000 visitors a year from over 100 countries.

Fourth is smart tourism. Applications for handsets and computers such as Australia’s OZ Planner provide information for would-be travelers, and Singapore airport’s iChangi provides real-time updates on flight status, gate information and parking.

The fifth trend is travel in search of a dream experience. This ranges from space travel and deep-sea excursions to sampling a person’s dream job, such as being a newscaster or a sommelier.

The sixth trend emphasizes ethical tourism. Authorities at some travel destinations can be accused of damaging the environment and cultural heritage or even violating the human rights of workers in the tourism trade. Ethical tourism promotes destinations where locals protect their surroundings and apply tourists’ spending to promoting development. This concept is attracting a following.

With its revenue increasing four times every year, England’s ResponsibleTravel.com is the world’s largest ethical tourism portal, providing more than 4,000 travel packages in 160 countries.

Finally, there is China, the world’s fourth-largest tourism consumer with its ever expanding personal income for overseas travel.

China’s influence in the industry is rising so much so that the Japanese government has already set the target to draw in over 3 million Chinese tourists by 2012 and relaxed visa rules for Chinese tourists. Air France has Chinese flight attendants and provides Chinese meals on all its flights to China.

There are four ways to take full advantage of these trends. The first is to create more integrated offerings. Korea already has components that reflect these trends such as pop culture tours of filming locations of movies and television dramas that have ridden the Korean Wave, quality education and temple stays for those seeking self-enhancement and rest.

Can’t these be better combined with cultural activities such as cooking classes and pottery making, physical activity such as mountain climbing, shopping at traditional markets, and eating at “secret” places that only locals know about?

Second, the local travel industry should discard get-rich-quick thinking and commit to long-term value-added planning. In this regard, more hotels suited for tourists with different budgets and specialized language and hospitality training should be considered. This would help facilitate customized tours for small groups and luxury travel packages for VIP travelers.

Third, ethical tourism, such as green tourism and responsible tourism, should be given priority. Tourism that promotes environmental protection and consciousness will work to elevate Korea’s image.

Korea has walking trails on Jeju Island, an extensive bicycling network and farm visits.

All of these can be marketed more extensively to travelers who are interested in goodwill and also help revitalize local areas while avoiding some of the negative side effects of tourism.

Finally, further efforts must be made to attract Chinese tourists. Currently, two million Chinese visitors visit Korea on a yearly basis. To boost this number, a master plan between the public and private sector is urgently needed. At the same time, content and products that appeal to the demands of Chinese visitors must be developed.

Obviously, Korea’s cutting-edge technology and ubiquitous broadband networks could be leveraged in all these strategies to provide travel options and tips, Internet links and real-time tourist information in a variety of languages.

Currently, Korea’s tourism industry is at a crossroads between growth and decline.

However, if the above strategies are effectively utilized, it will not be impossible to develop Korea into a tourism powerhouse that the whole world wants to visit as well as a real growth engine to further enhance the domestic service sector.

*The writer is a research fellow at Samsung Economic Research Institute.

By Joo Young-Min
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