A higher caliber of touristMore than 10 million foreign tourists are expected to visit Korea this year. According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the number reached 9.46 million last year. But at its current pace, it looks set to hit eight figures this month and possibly climb to 12 million by the end of the year. Non-Korean tourists have surged tenfold since their number first passed the one-million threshold in 1978 and more than doubled since reaching 5 million in 2000. The increase suggests the country’s tourism industry has grown quickly over the last decade. The upward trajectory owes largely to the popularity of Korean pop culture and entertainers and a rise in Chinese tourists.
Despite the growth in numbers, however, tourism revenue remains short of expectations. The number of foreign tourists surged 64 percent between 2005 and 2011, but their spending here grew just 4.4 percent on average annually. Foreigners spend less here than they would in other popular tourism destinations.
The local tourism industry has also failed to flourish or offer enough new jobs despite the influx of foreign travelers. This is because the industry mostly relies on low-cost and group tourism packages. A lack of variety in terms of lodging facilities, paired with a high language barrier and other poor examples of tourism infrastructure, work against painting the country as a desirable place in which to travel.
The government hopes to turn the country into an attractive tourism destination that can rival Hong Kong by drawing 20 million tourists by 2020. To achieve this, it needs to work aggressively to improve tourism infrastructure and services and make sure foreign visitors here are not cheated out of their money.
In order to promote the industry as a key service sector, the government needs to help it develop more value-added products such as medical, convention-related or exhibition packages. Without such upgrades and diversification in the country’s services market, tourists will remain yoked to cheap and short-term group packages. The authorities should start by lifting various regulations, including some in the medical field, so the industry can develop better packages to bring more value-added tourists to Korea.