Youke a doubled-edged sword
My family spent the Lunar New Year holiday on Jeju Island. It’s been seven years since my last visit, and while the beautiful scenery was the same, so many things have changed. It was strange to see chocolate experience centers all over the island. Since when, I wondered, had Jeju became a chocolate paradise? Museums and centers across the island also were new. Wherever we went, we ran into Chinese tourists. On Baozen Street in Yeon-dong, I couldn’t tell whether I was in China or Korea.
I was reminded of my time as a New York correspondent from 2009 to 2013. Tourist sites like Times Square, Wall Street and the Empire State Building were crowded with Chinese visitors. Among the five boroughs of New York City, Queens has long been dominated by Chinese residents. Chinatown stretched out to Flushing, the original Koreatown. Chinatown in southeast Manhattan is expanding and setting its sights on Koreatown on 32nd street. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Chinese-American as a mayor of New York City. Considering the dominance of the Chinese in New York so far away, it would seem only inevitable that the fate of Korea would swept up by the Chinese syndrome.
This year, more than 7 million Chinese tourists, or youke, will visit Korea. The number is expected to grow to 10 million by 2018. That is a fifth of Korea’s population. Koreans live all over the country, but Chinese visitors are concentrated in tourist spots. So the density of Chinese in those areas will be unimaginable. Chinese visitors already are helping the Korean economy. Last year, foreigners charged more than $10 billion in Korea. Credit card usage grew by 41.9 percent in a year to $11.57 billion, and Chinese visitors are the biggest spenders. While it is still smaller than what Koreans spend abroad using credit cards ($12.2 billion), it is likely they will surpass us soon.
It is only natural for tourism and retail industries to welcome Chinese visitors. But as we went around Jeju Island, I felt awkward. It was hard to see any Japanese or even Koreans. Merchants were catering to the Chinese visitors.
But the Chinese are transient guests, coming in a tour bus for a photo moment and leaving immediately. In order to cut costs, many tour guides are unqualified and not knowledgeable about Korean history and Jeju Island. So tourism products and services are standardized downward to appeal to the majority of tourists.
A few straw houses were built and called a folk village, selling low-quality dolhareubang replicas as souvenirs. They all are labeled “Made in China.” The chocolate experience center was embarrassing. A 10-minute program of melting chocolate bits and pouring the liquid into a mold was 8,000 won ($7) after a 20 percent discount. It is so random to experience after flying all the way from China.
Now, Chinese-run restaurants and souvenir shops are increasing, and the tourism income for Jeju residents is going down. It was simply impossible to find a half-day or full-day tour involving scenic horse rides.
Many parts of the island were being developed after Jeju introduced an investment immigration program offering residency to foreigners investing more than half a million dollars. With Chinese investors buying land in Jeju, real estate speculation is booming on the island. The prices for some lots along the coastal road have surged tenfold. It is hard to find land for sale, not even the rocky lots on Mount Halla. Increases in land prices will push up leases. What will the future of Jeju be when leases go up and tourism doesn’t yield much profit?
As long as Korea is located next to China, a tsunami of Chinese visitors is unavoidable. But if the tsunami leaves empty souvenir shops and shallow business tactics, the Chinese visitors will be a disaster, not a blessing.
JoongAng Ilbo, Mar. 6, Page B8
*The author is a business news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Jung Kyung-min