IN THE middle of the very popular Myeong-dong district, a Chinese tourist stands alone looking puzzled. Ms. Wang Fang is visiting Korea alone for a week and claims that she feels bombarded by the shopping vendors in this area. “Before I planned my trip, I was afraid that I would not be able to communicate with the locals. I was glad to find out that many of the shopping clerks spoke fluent Chinese. Yet, nobody here seems to be willing to give me any help. They just see me as a customer who they can easily fool.”
The impact of tourism on Korea
The earliest records of tourism in Korea can be found during the Period of the Three Kingdoms when Chinese aristocrats visited Korea for political or military purposes. However, both the scale and purpose of tourism changed as time went by. The rapid economic development during the 1970s led to an increased investment in transportation systems and accommodation, which made a positive impact on the development of tourism in Korea. Such investment in tourism allowed Korea to become a more open and tourist-friendly nation for people from all sorts of cultural backgrounds. Today, the positive influence of hallyu*, the Korean Wave, has led to the influx of a large number of tourists from all over Asia. Fans of K-pop stars visit Korea to go to concerts and many of them also visit the shooting locations of their favorite Korean dramas.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, tourism can be defined as “the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest.” As we can understand from this, tourism is as much of an economic activity as it is a cultural one. It can bring benefits to both the visitors and the hosts: tourists receive entertainment while exploring other cultures and hosting states can gain revenue from the visitors’ spending.
In terms of the economic benefits, Korea is a huge beneficiary of tourism. In 2012, $14.2 billion was brought in by the country’s inbound tourism, showing a 13.6% increase from the previous year. Just last year, the revenue earned from tourism hit a new record with $18.1 billion. Many people contribute this huge rise to the increase in “youke,” Chinese visitors who purchase luxury goods from Korea to avoid high taxes and counterfeit products back in China. Thus, the increasing purchasing power of the Chinese has had a positive influence on the South Korean economy. The revenue gained through tourism plays a major role in maintaining the state’s hard power, as the government uses this revenue to strengthen its infrastructure, maintain its military and more. The reliance on tourism for economic development seems to be constantly increasing.
On the other hand, tourism also works as a means of improving a state’s soft power. Tourism is an “image making” tool because tourists can form an in-depth understanding of different states according to their personal experiences in that nation. This gives the chance for each state to use tourism as a means of communicating a certain desirable image of their nation to the tourists. By improving the facilities for tourists and emphasizing the positive aspects of their culture, states are able to influence how others view them. In this sense, tourism can help enhance the image of Korea around the world with a gentle nudge.
The issues to be tackled
As tourism has become an important source of economic revenue as well as a means of maintaining soft power, nations have come to take more interest in improving their tourism industry. This is true also in Korea. As a result, numerous studies and analyses have been made of the Korean tourism industry recently. These have also revealed the dark sides of tourism in Korea: the fundamental and perceptional problems within Korean society, possibly making the tourists search for alternatives rather than travelling to Korea.
Tourism in Korea tends to focus too much on the economic gains rather than the cultural benefits it can bring. As Ms. Wang Fang has claimed above, it is fixated on encouraging the tourists to make purchases rather than trying to help and provide services for the tourists. It is true that the commercial effects cannot be overlooked in discussing tourism, but its emphasis seems to be extreme in Korea. Shopping districts are filled with signs written in all sorts of languages that try to lure tourists to buy their products. Shopping vendors in these areas are fluent in Chinese and Japanese. Even the local Koreans claim that they feel uncomfortable with how the clerks keep clinging to the foreign travelers.
Bombarding the tourists with endless advertisements is a mild case. There are even circumstances where the vendors take advantage of the tourists that do not speak fluent Korean nor have much information about Korea by making an unfair bargain. In Namdaemoon, most products do not have a fixed price, so vendors are likely to ask for a higher price for the foreigners. Even some taxi drivers call demand an unreasonable price; in a very recent case, a taxi driver was accused of requiring foreign tourists to pay 10 times the cost of what was shown on the taximeter. Such unethical treatment of international tourists that places too much emphasis on the commercial aspect of tourism has led to growing antipathy toward tourism in Korea and the country itself.
The hostility toward Korea is a problem, but so is the lack of investment to support traditional Korean culture. In order to gain more attention from foreign visitors, both the Korean government and ordinary citizens merely focus on promoting the contemporary Korean Wave rather than showing the beauty of our traditional culture. In Myeong-dong streets, there are many stores that sell calendars and t-shirts with images of Korean celebrities. Yet, it is very difficult to find any products with traditional Korean patterns or colors. In Korean palaces such as Gyeongbokgung, large posters with pictures of scenes from the popular Korean historical drama, Dae Jang Geum, can be seen. This has become a photo site for many tourists but, regrettably, it also obscures the beautiful scenery of the palace. It is reasonable that the increasing demand for the Korean Wave should be satisfied but not to the extent that it obscures the value of traditional Korean culture.
The remedies for the future
The major drawback of current tourism in Korea is that it places too much emphasis on the economic benefits rather than spreading the true value of Korean culture. By learning from some of the strong points of tourist industries in Britain and Japan, the nation would be able to find a new outlook on tourism, as a means of strengthening Korea’s soft power.
To begin with, London has been able to receive a high reputation among tourists because of its traveler-friendly facilities. The red double deck bus which represents the city itself is used as a “jump on, jump off” system so that travelers can easily travel from one place to another. The Korea Tourism Organization also came up with the Seoul City Tour bus with this in mind but it does not make enough stops and only provides recordings in 4 different languages. Britain was able to win the hearts of its tourists due to its consideration toward them. Nonetheless, the lack of facilities to help the tourists in Korea has created a negative image of the nation, making it lose its popularity in the long run.
To add on, Japan was able to grab the attention of foreign visitors by investing in their traditional cultural products. This was possible because the Japanese government made efforts to relate Japanese culture with Western culture over a long period of time. This allowed Japanese culture to adapt to the diverse tastes of people from all around the world. Nevertheless, Korea does not have a specific cultural product that represents the entire nation. Instead, many people believe that Korean culture like Cheonggukjang and Talchum** would not be able to attract foreigners. What they fail to realize is that, it is not that these cultures are unattractive, but that not much has been done to introduce them properly to the outside world. More efforts need to be made to adjust the traditional Korean culture into a global one that would help create a new image of Korea.
According to Kim Nam-cho (Prof., Dept. of Tourism, Hanyang Univ.), another problem with tourism in Korea is that most of the visits are focused on Seoul. “80% of tourists visit Seoul while other regions, with the exception of Pusan and Jeju Island, are left unnoticed. Thus, more needs to be done to provide the tourists with enough information so that they can also visit tourist sites situated outside of Seoul. At the moment, the government is putting efforts to creating online websites and smart phone applications so that visitors can access information on tourism with much ease. Also, adjustments are being made on the transportation systems to provide the services in various languages. This would allow foreigners to easily travel within Korea to visit various regions.”
Kim claimed that the future of tourism in Korea is not as dark as it might seem, however. “Korea is showing development in the cultural sector but its growth is too slow compared to the economic sectors. This is because most Chinese people associate tourism with making purchases in the local area. This is a natural phenomenon in the early stages of tourism.” He continued that as half of the inbound tourists consisted of Chinese people last year, the domestic tourism industry had no choice but to concentrate on the commercial sectors to keep up with the demand. But, this does not necessarily mean that Korea lacks cultural and artistic products; in respect to the commercial market, it may be falling behind but this is relative. Kim predicted that the situation would be better with time when the Chinese tourists would become adjusted to the culture of tourism and take more interest in getting to know about Korean culture.
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Whether the excessive focus on the economic aspect of tourism is a natural phenomenon or not is debatable. However, the fact that tourism has been and will continue to be an important part of Korea, both as a means of gaining economic benefits and to spread the positive aspects of our culture, is certain. Hence, it is unfortunate that people in Korea have come to view tourism as only a lucrative business. This attitude surely needs to be reconsidered, as its continuation would lead to more tourists refraining from visiting Korea. What truly moves the heart of the tourists, is not the extravagant spectacles but the nation’s respect for the tourists and toward their own culture. It is high time for tourism in Korea to go through a reform, one that embraces our history to show who we truly are.
*Hallyu: Newly coined term referring to the increase in the popularity of South Korean culture, including K-Pop, K-drama and more, also known as the Korean Wave
**Talchum: Traditional Korean dance that is performed wearing a mask