Tourism policy needs a revisit

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Tourism policy needs a revisit

The government appears intent on making the country a popular tourism destination. Even the foreign ministry has joined the pitch by persuading foreign envoys to encourage their nationals to visit Korea.

The country has been shocked to see the number of foreign tourists drastically fall due to the spread of the Middle East respiratory syndrome. Chinese and other tourists that had swarmed the streets of Seoul and resort areas like Jeju, turned to disease-safe Japan and other destinations. The government has announced that the epidemic has been overcome, but many visitors have not returned.

It is not just the government that is desperate to draw Chinese tourists back. The bidding for four new licences for duty-free shops attracted 22 competitors. The bids for integrated resorts that can contain casinos are even fiercer. The project for a resort complex in Yeongjongdo in the Incheon Free Economic Zone drew 17 bidders. Over 30 public and private enterprises have indicated interest in integrated resort projects across the nation.

Integrated resorts and the expansion of in-city duty-free shops are part of the government plan to boost tourism. But how much they can help to the country’s domestic demand is questionable.

Let’s look at the city duty-free shops first. The winners of the new duty-free licenses - HDC Shilla and Hanwha Galleria - will open their respective shops at the I’Park Mall in Yongsan and 63 Building in Yeouido. Both are hardly popular tourism or shopping districts. For some unknown reasons, the companies have not listed any benefits in services to local consumers, although three out of 10 customers at local duty-free shops are Korean nationals. The companies either have no respect for local customers or want to make the shops exclusive for foreigners.

The integrated resort policy is more worrisome. The government seems to believe a complex of cinemas, convention centers and shopping malls will draw visitors if a casino is annexed even without destination merits. But not even Chinese or big spenders from other parts of the world would be interested in casinos that are off-limits to locals.

The statistics show how miscalculating the government had been. There are 16 casinos exclusively for foreigners in luxury hotels in Seoul. But their combined revenue does not equal that of the casino in Jeongseon, Gangwon - the only casino permitted for Korean nationals. The regulars at the foreigners-only casinos are mostly Chinese or ethnic Koreans from China living here.

Rich gamblers shun Korean casinos because they can be easily identified or recognized. The Chinese rich do not want to be seen gambling amongst the same nationals. The rich, therefore, prefer casino-inclusive resorts in Marina Bay Sands in Singapore or Las Vegas.

Local companies that run integrated resorts through spending from Chinese visitors could also face scrutiny from the Chinese government. They could be regarded as greedy casinos out to earn money from Chinese nationals. This could cause diplomatic friction with China.

Several Korean casinos were questioned by Chinese authorities currently waging a war with corruption for trying to recruit Chinese gamblers in the country.

Any attempt to stimulate the tourism industry cannot work as long as the government maintains a double standard on casino policy. Both the government and businesses should stop separating policy for local and Chinese consumers.

Destinations and facilities that can attract locals can also draw tourists from outside.

Tourism destinations and developments should be evened out across the country instead of concentrating too much on the capital and select popular areas like Jeju. At the same time cheap package deals should be fixed as they only harm the nation’s image.

Under current design, the new duty-free shops and integrated resorts could only end up as ghettos.

JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 11, Page B8

*The author is the industry news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Pyo Jae-yong

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