Korea Travel News: 10 Million Visitors in 2012
South Korean tourism officials are preparing for an event to welcome this year’s 10 millionth foreign tourist, who is expected to arrive Wednesday. The ceremony set at Incheon International Airport, the country’s main gateway, should not end up merely with a self-complacent celebration for achieving the landmark figure for the first time. It should rather serve as an occasion for giving serious consideration to long-term measures to further promote Korea’s tourism sector.
The number of foreign tourists to the country this year is projected to exceed 10 million this week mainly on the back of Chinese and Japanese visitors coming in large numbers. Nearly 9.5 million tourists visited from January through October, up 20 percent from a year earlier, according to data from the Korea Tourism Organization. The figure is estimated to reach 11.2 million by the end of the year, compared with 9.79 million last year. The number of inbound travelers has increased at an annual average of 15 percent for 34 years since it exceeded 1 million in 1978. It topped 5 million in 2000 and surpassed 8 million in 2010.
It is no small achievement for the country to draw more than 10 million foreign travelers annually despite the geopolitical risk posed by the hostile confrontation between the two Koreas and the lack of world-renowned historical and natural heritages. Japan, which has a territory three times as large as Korea’s and more tourism merits, has still fallen short of reaching the 10-million mark. If as many as 11.2 million foreign tourists visit the country by December as forecast, Korea is expected to become the world’s 20th largest tourist destination.
Among the G20 members, Korea is the only country that has seen the number of inbound travelers rise by more than 10 percent for three consecutive years since 2010 amid the prolonged global economic downturn.
A boom in hallyu, or the popularity of Korean TV dramas, pop music and films abroad, is cited as a main reason for the sharp increase in the number of foreign tourists, especially from China and Japan. The number of Chinese and Japanese visitors surged by nearly 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively, from a year earlier during the January-October period. The enhanced image of the country, hosting many international events including Yeosu Expo, easing requirements for visa issuance and tourism agencies’ efforts to offer diversified tour packages have also combined to draw more travelers from abroad.
Accounting for about 20 percent of the world’s gross domestic product, the tourism industry carries high added value. According to a study by a local research institute, the inflow of 10 million foreign tourists is estimated to bring 22.6 trillion won ($20.7 billion) in economic benefits and add about 390,000 new jobs, alleviating the impact of sluggish domestic consumption on the economy. A separate study by the KTO showed the tourism sector with a higher rate of return than the nation’s key export items of cars, mobile phones and semiconductor chips. Tourism investment also creates five times more jobs than investing in the IT industry.
Korea still has a long way to maximize its potential in the tourism sector. Tourism’s proportion of its GDP remains at 5.2 percent, far below the global average of 9.1 percent. Last year, the country’s tourism investment accounted for a mere 2.2 percent of the total, compared to 20.2 percent in Singapore, 9 percent in Hong Kong and 6.8 percent in Thailand. The global average stood at 4.8 percent.
Tourism officials have put forward an ambitious goal of attracting more than 20 million foreign tourists by 2020.
Such a target cannot be reached by just riding on the Korean Wave. Continuous efforts should be made to settle or ease complaints raised by foreign tourists about difficulty in communication, insufficient accommodating facilities, traffic problems, being pressured to buy goods and overcharged by taxis. It is needed to expand more value-added packages such as medical tourism, shopping tours and hosting international conventions and exhibitions. More attractive destinations should be developed in provincial areas other than Seoul and the southern resort island of Jeju to lead foreign tourists to stay longer and have more diverse experiences.
But the most important aspect for making foreign travelers want to visit here again may be honesty, accuracy and kindness shown by Koreans toward them.
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