Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 3

Part 1 here.

Part 2 here.

So, we’ve reached the final post. The fact that it’s Part 3 just goes to show how completely over-optimistic I was thinking the whole series would just be one post. But I live and learn.

In the first two posts, then, I outlined the sorts of places and attractions that tourists visit in neighbouring countries, and why they’re so popular. I also explained how I think this knowledge can be applied in Korea, and what Korea specifically has to offer herself, in an attempt to find a way to develop tourism in the country, as the government seems so keen to do these days. In this final part I hope to bring that all together and decide how it should be promoted to achieve success as a tourist destination.

The first thing I would do, however, in order to prepare for this desired tourism surge, is to begin well in advance paying those who work in the tourism industry a lot more. There are various reasons for doing this. Firstly, tourism is not a “high status” industry in Korea. It’s much more desirable to work for Samsung – even if you just fetch the coffee. I’m sure a lot of this is to do with how difficult it is to get a job there, and also how much you get payed once you do. Raise the wages in the tourism industry and you increase its appeal to prospective employees and also its inherent status. Moreover, tourism companies would then be able to choose their employees from a wider range of hopefuls, allowing them to pick more intelligent and more capable staff. Another upside is that they would surely be able to employ staff who are better at speaking foreign languages, and I don’t just mean English, but speakers of other languages, who generally do not work outside of the business world in Korea, due to this being the only sphere that will pay out for their particular skills. More languages spoken better, and more capable staff, who are more enthusiastic about what they do will almost certainly lead to a better experience for tourists in Korea.


Step number two is more of an attitude change, and it’s something that most expats are familiar with, and I know has been discussed by Gord Sellar and subsequently on The Grand Narrative, here and here respectively. Basically, many Koreans feel that they have to portray Korea in a positive light to non-Koreans. The issue I have with this is simple; no they don’t have to, people will always prefer the truth, without spin or prejudice. And also, how can you know what someone else will think of as positive? From my personal point of view, someone obviously trying to convince me that something is good without leaving any room for another opinion, will never make me accept what that person is saying. By that logic, and making the leap that other people might also think like that, people will actually react negatively when Koreans forcefully try to present Korea and Korean things in an unnecessarily positive light. As I’ve said in the first two posts, I believe that there’s more than enough genuine positives in and about Korea that they can speak for themselves.

What I’m really trying to say is, tourists should only be told that kimchi’s good for them if they ask. They never need to be told that any part of Korea is a Mecca or a hub. If any part of Korea, or Korea itself really does start to function as a genuine and noteworthy hub of something, non-Koreans will be able to see that for themselves and will pass it on to others. If they have it rammed down their throats – without even asking – they’re going to be very put off. I’m sure my readers will be able to think of other examples of this happening – what Roboseyo would call kimcheerleading. Those who encounter tourists, especially in a professional capacity, but preferably everyone, should just stick to the truth – be entertaining, be knowledgeable, be factual, but keep it relevant, if people believe in Korea – which they should – let her speak for herself. It will undoubtedly give people a much better impression. Also, when the discussion arises, emphasise (not too over-enthusiastically) Korea’s uniqueness, rather than feeling a need to compare every aspect of Korea with somewhere else as a means of justification. Nobody wants to see the Hawaii of Asia, they want to see what Korea has to offer, not how Korea wishes it was something else. Korea should not try and feed off the reflected legitimacy of other places when she’s perfectly capable of creating her own, with some time and the right attitude.


Mecca - Photo courtesy of


Kwangju - Not Kimchi Mecca, please

Another attitude issue that may or may not be a major impacting factor on tourism is that, unfortunately, some Koreans don’t see foreigners – even tourists – as welcome in Korea. I know from personal experience that this isn’t the majority, but for someone spending maybe only a week in Korea, all it would take would be one person to potentially ruin the experience. If people pay money to go to your country, or if they live there, it is because they choose to. Because they like it, or are curious and want to discover more about it. There cannot possibly be anything wrong with that, and these people must be welcomed. I’m sure, with time, the remains of this “hermit kingdom mindset” will disappear, but the sooner the better, for all concerned.

2408834920088043206acDEwR_phA couple more of these general points about attitudes that should accompany a successful tourism industry. First of all, when Koreans travel, they often like to go where lots of other people are. They hike together, swarm along the beaches like locusts, camp together and so on, and they have great fun doing it – why not – but not everyone wants to travel/holiday in that way. A couple of foreigners with backpackers strolling into a remote countryside village may be having the time of their lives. I’m not really sure as to what extent Koreans understand that many people like to go somewhere quieter when they travel, and see things that are off the beaten track, so I don’t want to speculate too much – just enough to say that there’s no guarantee of success if you try and sell a Korean’s ideal break to a non-Korean. I guess the real lesson would be “know your market.”

Just briefly before I move on to actual marketing practice, The Customer Is Always Right. Tony Hellmann on his blog Jumping the Asymptote has a great post about consumer and service practice regarding this that I’d urge you to read if your interested in why I’m making this point. On top of that, tourists are trying to have fun – everyone should be willing to help make sure they do. It works out for everyone that way.

Now, marketing. Most obvious of all is to get into tourist brochures. Every country has their own travel agencies and tourist brochures that people check out. I’d imagine that maybe in some American, Canadian, New Zealander or Australian brochures you might sometimes be able to buy a holiday to Korea, or see Korea advertised (please correct me if I’m wrong), but in Europe, India, most of Russia, Africa, South America I’m sure, you can buy package holidays to Japan, China, Tailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong – just about anywhere in East Asia except Korea. I don’t think there’s ever been an advert for Korea in Europe. I can’t find any evidence for that, but I can’t find any evidence that there has, either, and I certainly don’t know anyone who’s seen one. You’ve got to speculate to accumulate. If Korea could manage to accomplish some of what I’v laid out in this series of posts, then they should be willing to spend big to get the name of Korea out there as a destination. The most basic principle of advertising is that if people know of it, some people are going to want it. I can imagine that part of the problem with this up until now has been that Korea wants to handle every aspect of its tourism itself, meaning they don’t want foreign companies bringing tourists into Korea, when Koreans believe they can do it with Korean companies. But the simple fact of the matter is that not everyone will want to fly with Korean Air, not everyone will want to book with a Korean tourism company, and not everyone will have heard enough about Korea to allow that to happen. There’s nothing wrong with selling Korea to foreign companies. The tourism companies that have the most business in Japan could surely help Korea’s tourism industry. Furthermore, linked with what I said above, you have to know your market. Non-Koreans should be the one’s to advertise Korea to non-Koreans, they’re far more likely to get it right.

I discussed this next point in the first two parts as well, but I see it as absolutely crucial. Korea needs to improve and expand its pop culture. There will be a post regarding the Korean Wave coming up soon that will discuss in more detail how this can be done, but as a general rule, Japanese pop culture – dramas, music, manga/manhwa, films etc – tends to be more original, non-generic and creative, in fact this is what drives it. Korean pop culture, on the other hand, is driven more by romance, melodrama, music, costumes and scenery, but most of all by star power. This means that much of what Korea produces is all very same-same. Japan, producing a wider variety of themes and ideas, was able to massively grow its pop culture exports because they were passively exported. That is to say, other countries saw them and liked them, and therefore bought them of their own accord – with various different cultures all able to see something that appealed within the Japanese pop culture whole. If Korea could improve the quality and variety of its pop culture exports, and instead of seeming to force them onto other countries, they could be seen as being passively exported, raising the profile and appeal of Korea and her pop culture. This is also the best way to transmit culture outside of the diaspora, as it must be acknowledged that without the large numbers of people of Korean ethnicity living abroad, Korean pop culture would have an absolutely negligible presence outside of East Asia.

And the final thing that the Korean government should do to increase tourism in Korea is to improve the education of young people, and improve the non-standard education that affects everyone else through media, politics and society. Brian in Jeollanam-do has a few posts about Korean school textbooks, one of which is here. The better Koreans can understand foreign visitors, the better the experience will be for those tourists. This should also lead to Koreans growing up better understanding the differences between non-Koreans, that they are not a singular group, or a few large groups encompassing the whole world outside of Korea, and also hopefully they may see more of the similarities between themselves and non-Koreans. Of course, this can’t be taken to mean all Koreans, but from experience I’m sure many who have lived in Korea will recognise the truth in some of what I’m saying. Furthermore, improved education about the world outside may cause Koreans to travel around it more, and not just to the few common destinations. A nation of tourists is better equipped to be a good host nation to other tourists.

And so there you have it, that is my take on the tourism industry in Korea, what problems it currently has, how they could possibly be solved, and how the industry could grow. I’m not an expert in tourism, neither am I an expert in marketing/advertising. I do think I know a reasonable amount about Korea, and about traveling, so this is really nothing more than my view about how Korea could better develop as a popular tourist destination, as it seems to me as though there is a keen desire to do just that among the Korean government. As always, it would be good to read your responses and comments to what I’ve written here, especially as this is such a big topic, and I know not everyone is going to agree with all I’ve said!

15 Responses to “Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 3”

  1. Tony Says:

    Thanks for the mention. Oh, and my surname has two N’s at the end. 😉

    This was a great post and I’m glad I ran across it.

  2. Seamus Walsh Says:

    Sorry about that, I’ve corrected it now.

    and thanks for the compliment, do drop by some more!

  3. Martin Gray Says:

    Hello, the photograph of the Great Mosque in Mecca that you are using is one that I took, and which is on my web site, but you have given the photograph no credit. You are quite welcome to continue using my photograph but please be so kind as to give a proper credit, which would be:

    Photograph courtesy

    By the way, my web site,, is in the top five results for Google searches for Mecca.

    The reason that I want the photograph credited as I wrote above is that I want people to know where they can see other beautiful photographs of sacred sites around the world, as well as read the interesting information I have written about the places.

    Peace to you,

    Martin Gray

  4. Seamus Walsh Says:

    Hi Martin,

    Many apologies for the lack of credit for your photo, there’s no excuse. I’ve since updated the photo with the appropriate credit and a link to your site.

    Please come back and visit any time.

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