Deregulation needed for hotelsA crowd of people in front of an affluent department store in Myeongdong, downtown Seoul, rushed in as the doors opened on the morning of Oct. 2. The first-floor cosmetics section was immediately packed with swarms of Chinese customers. The Myeongdong shopping district has been occupied by Chinese who have flown to Seoul with extra money to spend during their weeklong holiday for the Oct. 1 National Day, one of the two annual extended Chinese holidays. The local tourism authority estimates that 160,000 Chinese visited Korea through Tuesday.
The Chinese Golden Week not only helps the Korean cosmetics market, but also mid-range hotels in downtown Seoul. They were fully booked by the middle of September. I met one group of tourists in a department store. The local guide explained that her group was staying in hotels in satellite cities in Ansan, Bucheon, and Incheon because there were no rooms in the capital. “Lodging in Seoul are either luxury hotels or cheap motels. Decent and affordable lodging to host tourists is hard to find in Seoul.”?
A shortage of mid-range hotels has long been a damper on the Korean tourism industry. The number of foreign visitors has doubled in the past eight years. The growth of visitors to Seoul exceeds the national average. Yet the supply of affordable lodging has not improved. Supply usually increases to meet demand. But this has not applied to the lodging area. Deregulation is the major stumbling block.
Across the nation, 91 business plans to build hotels have been rejected, 76 of which were planned for Seoul. Many of them were mid-range. Under the current law, a lodging facility needs clearance from the school review committee, which is dedicated to keeping the school zone safe from health and environmental dangers and educational disturbances, in order to build within 200 meters (656 feet) of a school. The committee rarely approves lodgings near school premises. A hotel businessman could seek a location further away from a school. But the problem is that there is little room to build a hotel. There are roads, apartment complexes, buildings or restricted areas everywhere.The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism has submitted a bill to the National Assembly to ease regulations. It suggests banning a lodging facility within 50 meters of a school entrance, while allowing locations beyond that range without approval from the school board. The bill has been rejected by the opposition, civilian and parent groups. It is natural for schools to be protective of their environment. The National Assembly bill subcommittee came up with a compromise by suggesting allowing hotels with more than 100 rooms without any facilities that can be hazardous to young children and teenagers. But the revision is also unlikely to pass easily.
Lodgings in Korea have long had a bad reputation. To conservative educators, even high-end hotels are regarded as “anti-educational.” But with foreign visitors reaching nearing 20 million, can Korea keep hosting them without decent and affordable facilities? Without a breakthrough in the hotel problem, the country may never achieve its goal to turn Seoul into a tourism destination that is a melting pot of history and urban lifestyle. Our children and their learning environment must be protected. But there must be a reasonable way to solve this problem.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 3, Page 30
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Kyu-youn