Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 1

korea 1

UPDATE: Find Part 2 HERE and Part 3 HERE.

There seems to me to have been a sudden mushrooming of discourse on the Korean “brand,” on Korea as a tourist destination and how to approve its standing among foreigners in both the news and on blogs. It’s likely that this was spurned on by the recent decision to change the “national slogans” of ‘Dynamic Korea’ and ‘Korea Sparkling,’ as well as the new promotional campaign by the Korea Broadcast Advertising Corporation (KOBACO) about how Koreans should behave (or not behave) in order to raise Korea’s national profile/image, also see here.

The blogosphere has plenty of comment and analysis of these new developments, so if you still haven’t read your fair share, follow the links above and don’t stop until you’ve had your fill! In this post I’ll try and stick away from all that, and take on instead the formidable task of how else to improve Korea’s national “brand” or image, as well as to make Korea a far more attractive tourist destination.

As this is quite an ambitious post, perhaps the most ambitious I’ve written so far, it will be spread over 3 posts, with one following shortly after the other.

The basis for my cunning plan(or not so much – do comment at the end!) aims to answer 3 main points:

  1. What sites in neighbouring Japan and China attract the most tourists, and why do they go there?
  2. How can that knowledge be applied to Korea? What does Korea have to offer in regard to these factors?
  3. Having decided exactly what it is that Korea offers for tourists, how should it then be marketed to compete with the tourism powerhouse neighbours of Japan and China?

So, onto the good stuff. Japan. When people think of Japan, what tourist destinations spring to mind, and why do they appeal? This is going to be a long post, so I’ll try and keep it as brief as possible! In no particular order, starting with:

Tokyo – Appeals because it’s so different to what people are used to; people have pop-culture induced ideas about its futuristic feel and cyberpunk atmosphere; it’s ultra-modern, which is cool; it has fantastic shopping and restaurants, certainly the leader in East Asia.

Shibuya Crossing

Mount Fuji – Beautiful scenery.

Kyoto – The traditional to Tokyo’s modern, also unlike anything experienced by tourists before; has traditional things that have garned interest abroad through pop culture, eg. geisha, samurai, zen and so on.

Bullet Trains – A fine example of technological supremacy; they’re fast, and again, the bullet trains of Japan hold a special place in people’s imaginations, being the first (right?) and often thought of as the best.

Harajuku/Shibuya – Centres for youth pop culture that’s both similar and fascinatingly different from that in the west.

Himeji Castle – Yet again, it’s different from “western” castles, it’s impressive, beautiful, cultural and historical.

Of course there are more than that, and it’s a very brief, general list, and my analysis is hardly deep, but I hope it serves my purposes. This is a Korea blog after all. But on to China:

Forbidden City – See Himeji Castle.

Tiananmen Square – An impressive space, made even more poignant in the eyes of tourists due to its recent historical significance and importance.

Tiananmen Square

Beijing – An absolute mass of people living in a totally different way to what tourists are used to, and a chance to see modern Communism at work – amongst other reasons.

Great Wall – Unique the world over, an impressive structure, and equally impressive and beautiful scenery.

Hong Kong/Shanghai – Pop culture has developed an impression of these places that makes them appealing, they look like they could have inspired some of the locations for Star Wars, and almost certainly did inspire some cyberpunk classics.

Ghost in the shellHong Kong

Ghost in the ShellShanghai

So, the main things I take from thinking about this are that pop culture has driven the tourism industries in these two countries, it has influenced perceptions of traditional culture in these places, and the role and depiction of traditional culture in pop culture (There will be a later post on the Hallyu and a comparison of it with the growth of Japanese pop culture coming up at some point as well, which should tie in somewhat). On top of that, the combination and contrast of ultra-modern and ultra-traditional that is hard to find in the “west” is a powerful contributing factor. Quite simply, and I’m sure many people would agree with me, most people travel to see things that are different from where they live. That’s why we don’t tend to care how close the nearest McDonalds and 7Eleven are to our hotel. It’s the things that are so obviously different that draw people to China and Japan, as well as the things that are totally unique. Without the spectacular Buddhist temples, palaces and rich histories, these countries would be considerably less well-travelled tourist destinations – obvious though it sounds. On top of this, pop culture has given us an impression about these places, and some features of their cultures, that whet the appetites of potential tourists to see it for real, and see more. What’s more, not all the pop culture products that reference Japan and China are even from those places. Some quick examples: Memoirs of a Geisha, James Clavell novels and film adaptations, The Last Samurai, Afro Samurai, Enter the Dragon, Kill Bill, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Empire of the Sun, all from outside of China and Japan, and the list could go on.


So, how can this knowledge of what drives tourism in Korea’s neighbours be applied to Korea, and what does Korea have to offer to tourists?

Firstly, and probably the most obvious, Korean pop culture, and non-Korean pop culture that features Korea, has to develop in order to drastically increase tourism to Korea. I know there will be some who are desperate to prove that there’s no suitable material from Korea, but I beg to differ. The Three Kingdoms period was rich in new design, saw the spread of Buddhism – that fabled Zen we have so many pre/mis-conceptions about in the west, had warriors skilled in combat and classics, the Hwarang, and had some great battles and potential for adventure and exploration stories. A lot of the same can be said of the Choson Dynasty, although instead of the spread of Buddhism you have its suppression, the classic love story Chunhyang, and a conservative value set just waiting to be questioned and explored. There are wars, invasions, Yi Sun-shin, and then we come to the Japanese occupation. Plenty of fodder there for all sorts of tales, I’m sure you’ll agree. Since then we’ve had the Korean War, the rise of Communism, Cold War-esque spying and terrorism, oppressive dictatorships, The Kwangju Uprising, the birth of democracy, and we still have a political tension reminiscent of the Cold War, and the (very faint) possibility of nuclear war providing endless possibilities for fiction set in the near future. I have no doubt this could easily match the cyberpunk speculations at the core of such fiction set in Japan or Hong Kong.


Another thing I base the theory that more and better pop culture = bigger tourism industry is the fact that Korean pop culture is most popular in other East and Southeast Asian countries, and these are the nationalities that contribute the most tourists in Korea. It’s been stated many times in discourse about the Korean Wave that tourists from these countries travel to Korea in such numbers precisely because the pop culture is so popular.

Furthermore, if Korean producers of pop culture – that is, writers, actors, filmmakers and so on – set the tone and provide the basis for a pop culture expansion centred around Korea, then foreign producers of pop culture have a starting point and can then take it in a new direction to appeal to audiences in other countries. These productions will inevitably focus on the positive, appealing aspects of Korean culture, as has happened with Japanese pop culture, as this is what makes for entertaining fiction.

In conjunction with this, the basic cost of traveling to and around Korea needs to become more tourist-friendly. If Korean Air is determined to place itself in the upper-middle region of the market, who is going to come forward and offer cheap, back-to-basics travel to Korea. Korea could do with its own large-scale low cost airline, and failing that needs to make itself more appealing to more foreign low cost airlines. Case in point, Eastern Europe has prospered greatly from a tourism boom in recent years, and this is largely due to being cheap to reach from Western Europe, and cheap once people get there as well, although retaining a sense of quality, and not “feeling cheap.”

Now, having dealt with hypothetical precursors to a tourism boom in South Korea, it seems practical to assess what sort of reasons people have in general for traveling, wherever it may be. Again, in no particular order:

  • Hiking/exploring
  • Relaxing, pampered holidays
  • City stays, particularly in historical or futuristic cities: anywhere that’s unusual and interesting.
  • Cultural exploration
  • Action/sports holidays including golf, winter sports etc.

Having reached the 1500 word mark, I think this would be a good time to call an end to part one. I had planned to deal with this whole topic in one post, but judging by the length of it so far I think that would be unwise. In the next part I’ll explore the sites and other things that are unique (yes, I know, but it’s said now) to Korea, and that would enable Korea to offer a Korean experience for tourists based on the criteria laid out above.

Part 2 HERE.

14 Responses to “Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 1”

  1. Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 2 « Asadal Thought Says:

    […] Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 2 August 5, 2009 — Seamus Walsh In the last post I identified what I considered to be the main places people visit in Korea’s neighbours, […]

  2. Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 3 « Asadal Thought Says:

    […] Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 3 August 8, 2009 — Seamus Walsh Part 1 here. […]

  3. joan Grace Says:

    how nice…. i really appreciate it ….
    hope i can see it in personal….

  4. Some of the Great Blogs I’ve Been Reading… » The Hub of Sparkle! Says:

    […] about improving Korea as a tourist destination which were all well-written, and thought-provoking. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, look at the attractions of places near Korea, Korea’s own strengths, the […]

  5. The General Branding Problem Says:

    […] Rob, over at Roboseyo, has a nice rant about Korean “branding.” He discusses tourist branding, but everything he says can in some way be applied to Korean literature (I should also mention that Rob points to Asadal’s excellent three-part analysis of the &#8220…). […]

  6. Why The Word ‘Foreigner’ Is Used So Much In Korea « Asadal Thought Says:

    […] the most of life in Korea. I won’t stop doing big semi-academic posts like this, this or this series, but they will be interspersed with posts like this […]

  7. rockwell review Says:

    Great post. Hope to see a lot more good posts in the future.

  8. sarah Says:

    Hi Sir,

    I think this is a great post. I’m an undergraduate in SIngapore writing about how pop culture in Korea is used to drive the tourism industry and this was mentioned in your post. Iis it possible to email me some of the links you’ve based your argument on? I would appreciate it a lot.
    email me at

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