For some, Gangnam bus tour a mixed bag
“Horse Dance Your Way to Gangnam” was a promotion by the New York office of the Korea Tourism Organization that offered round-trip airfare, hotel vouchers and two tickets for bus tours of Gangnam.
Two winners were selected from those who uploaded YouTube videos inspired by “Gangnam Style.”
Winners were chosen at the end of October. But the slogan sums up the ongoing goal of Korean tourism agencies: bring foreign horse-dancers to Psy’s home turf.
“The number of tourists on the Gangnam City Tour increased 30 to 40 percent after ‘Gangnam Style’ went viral,” said Kwak Bong-hoon from the Cosmojin tour company, which operates under the district office.
Cosmojin plans to increase its Gangnam city bus tours to six days a week after operating three tours a week since 2008.
The Gangnam District Office has also established a new Tourism Promotion Division this month to attract foreign tourists and develop programs.
“We are working to build ‘Hallyu Star Street’ next year in Cheongdam-dong in cooperation with SM Entertainment,” said an official in the district office. “We also have plans for other programs, such as a medical tour and Hallyu-themed tour to meet the growing demand.”
On a recent Saturday morning, 22 people - most of them from the United States - met at Bongeunsa Temple for a day-long bus tour of Psy’s favorite district. Despite the rush of tourism initiatives, the current bus tour remains a work in progress.
9-10 a.m.: Bongeunsa Temple
Bongeunsa Temple is a beautiful 1,200-year-old Buddhist temple surrounded by posh skyscrapers in Samseong-dong in southern Seoul. Initially founded in 794 during the Silla Dynasty (57 BC-AD 935), Bongeunsa was reconstructed in 1498 during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) and subsequently became the headquarters of the Korean Seon (Zen) sect.
Along with its historical significance, the tour guide highlighted a unique panoramic view of the temple against a backdrop of looming skyscrapers and the World Trade Center.
Tour participants then went down to see the Maitreya Buddha, the tallest statue of its kind in Korea.
“I liked Bongeunsa,” said Octavio Acevedo. “Being in the middle of the city, with paintings on the wall and people calmly praying, all these put my mind at ease.”
10:20-11 a.m.: Eunma Market
The group then headed for Eunma Market and its colorful assortment of traditional food, from vegetables and fruits to rice cakes and freshly made tofu. The tour guide explained that what is sold in the market is typical inexpensive daily fare for locals, although Eunma is also frequented by wealthy regulars who live in the nearby Eunma Apartment Complex, one of Korea’s most expensive residential addresses.
There were powders made of flowers, seeds used to make nutritious drinks or skin conditioners and jeon (Korean pancake), an important food for ancestor worship ceremonies.
11:10-11:50 a.m.: Samsung d’light Center
The next destination was Samsung d’light Center, where visitors could try and buy the latest products and accessories by Samsung Electronics. People split up to check out their favorite gadgets, from super-slim laptops to the latest devices in the Galaxy series.
But some in the group were not impressed, saying that the tech giant exhibition center does not fully reflect Korea’s unique culture.
“Back in the States, I live next to an Apple Store. They also let me try out their latest products,” said one man. “I see no difference here.”
Noon-1 p.m.: Lunch at COEX Mall
As lunchtime was nearing, the guide took the tour members to COEX Mall, Asia’s largest underground shopping center.
After lunch, the tour group attended taekwondo and dance demonstrations in front of COEX Mall. A taekwondo demonstration team performs every Saturday.
The team broke boards with side, front and back kicks, with onlookers overwhelmed by the yelling intended to channel aggression into more powerful blows.
“They really look nimble and powerful,” said tour member named Matt.
Tour participants were shown the demonstration with no explanation of the traditional martial art, and some felt unsatisfied.
“I don’t know anything about taekwondo. It could’ve been much better if I could get to know when it started and who developed it,” said Yawer Daud.
2-3 p.m.: COEX Aquarium
The tour group then headed for COEX Aquarium, Korea’s largest theme-oriented aquarium. The aquarium has 2,500 tons of water with an estimated 40,000 creatures representing about 650 species.
The tanks are divided into six sections, including “Inca Empire” and “Amazon World.”
Tourists, especially those with their kids, enjoyed seeing live coral, sharks, turtles, rays and evil-looking piranhas, as well as exquisite small jellyfish, glass fish and sea horses.
“My kids were really excited to see all the live ocean creatures,” said Acevedo.
But again the aquarium wasn’t satisfying for those looking for something uniquely Korean.
“I would like something more traditional, one that shows Korea’s authentic culture. I can see those sea animals in other countries,” said a group member.
3:10-4 p.m.: Seolleung royal tombs
The next stop was Seolleung, site of the grave of King Seongjong (1469?94), which leads to that of Queen Jeonghyeon Wanghu, the king’s second wife.
“It felt like Central Park, but here it is more serene and peaceful,” said Matt.
4:20-5 p.m.: Garosu-gil
The last destination was Garosu-gil, a trendy enclave filled with swanky boutiques and artsy cafes, a fine area for celebrity siting. The guide allowed only 30 minutes to look, so most of the group couldn’t venture into the small alleys some of the most unique shops are located.
“I walked to the end of the street,” said one disappointed tourist.
It seemed clear that Psy’s “Gangnam Style” played a part in drawing people to the affluent district.
“I can hear the song everywhere. It made me feel familiar with this region,” said Katherine Bortko who came from the United States.
But many of the people on the tour did not have the experience they expected.
“I think the travel organizers tried to show us as many attractions as possible. But the thing is that we can’t fully appreciate the place,” said Daud. “It would’ve been better if we can take time and walk even if we could go to fewer places.”
Some participants complained about a lack of commentary by the tour leader. “In the market and during the taekwondo demonstration, I expected more background information,” said Acevedo.
The tour organizer acknowledged there is still plenty of room for improvement.
“It is quite recent that a lot of people register for our one-day tour. We acknowledge that there are different requests and schedules are a little hectic,” he said.
“We are developing different kinds of tours that will be available early next year. If there is a tourist who wants more kid-oriented programs, we will offer a separate program to tailor to different needs.”
By Park Eun-jee [email@example.com]