Improving Korea As A Tourist Destination: Part 2

Part 1 here.

Part 3 here.

In the last post I identified what I considered to be the main places people visit in Korea’s neighbours, China and Japan, and what drives people to visit those places. I also established that the power of pop culture abroad can be an important driving force for tourism at home, including foreign pop culture that references one’s own culture, or uses one’s own country as a setting, the Kill Bill films for example. By that logic, the influence of Korean pop culture abroad, and foreign pop culture referencing Korea, needs to grow. I also layed out a list of various events, places, topics etc that could feature in a sustained growth of Korean pop culture, and indeed, foreign pop culture drawing on Korea as a source material, as has so often been the case with China and Japan.

Finally, at the end of the post, I outlined some basic types of travel that people embark on, so we can move on from there to see what Korea specifically has to offer. That list again:

  • 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.

For most of these categories, it should be obvious that Korea can provide a uniquely Korean experience of them. Take hiking, Korea may not have the highest mountains you can ever hike, but they have a tremendous history with their mountains, and they have always viewed mountains differently to us. Korea provides hiking routes that take you along the coast, past Buddhist temples, Confucian schools, shamanistic sites and happenings, shrines to mountain spirits, hot springs, gorges, waterfalls, rivers, views; this list could go on. Now, for any non-jaded, inexperienced Korea traveler, that’s got to be an impressive combination.


Relaxing, pampered holidays is a category that could do with some work in Korea, and as far as I’m aware, the closest they get is in Jeju-do. It’s a fine place to visit, with some high quality hotels, scenery, beaches, and some culture if you want it. It has good food, including fresh “sushi.” Not a bad offering, and personally I think it would be a shame to overdevelop the island for the sake of improved “high class” tourism. We must also take into account that the Pacific Islands are not all that far away, and for many people I’m sure it wouldn’t matter how good the facilities were in Jeju-do, Bali’s always going to win. I know there are also some very nice, expensive hotels in Kyŏngju (Gyeongju), complete with plenty of historical and cultural sites to see, but again, it’s a place that it seems a shame to overdevelop with fancy hotels – you lose the soul of the place. It’s therefore a shame that Korea doesn’t have miles and miles of virtually unused tropical beaches, so this probably isn’t the best avenue to take to increase tourism significantly.

As for city stays, I think Korea is more than capable of providing an attractive tourist destination. It simply depends on marketing, and accurately identifying what tourists want to see. Seoul clearly meets the western tourists ideas of the East Asian old meets new. It’s got its futuristic buildings, vibrant nightlife, great food, high technology, excellent hotels, all alongside the traditional temples, palaces, shrines and monuments, and it’s surrounded by relatively low, easily-climbable mountains that give you a break from the bustle and a great view. I also think it has a very unusual atmosphere, with some “quirky” features that have the potential to really connect with tourists, such as the 포장마차, the little street stalls selling cheap snack food.

Cheonggyecheon, central Seoul

Cheonggyecheon, central Seoul


On top of that, there’s also Kyŏngju, as I mentioned before, which is a good city to stay in if it’s culture or history you’re after. Pusan (Busan) also offers a good alternative, and both Jeju-si and Sŏgwip’o (Seogwipo) can combine the best of various different types of holiday.

When people go on a “cultural trip,” what they’re really after is to see some of the authentic local culture that’s different from what they’ve seen before. On that note, I think that could be achieved anywhere in Korea, but some destinations are more obvious than others: Seoul, Kyŏngju, Jeju-do, Hahoe, temples, mountainous rural areas and others I’m sure.

Korea also offers a surprisingly good amount of sports for holiday makers. There are of course numerous golf courses, many at a high international standard, they’re also cheaper than Japan, and regularly classed among the best in Asia. Korea also doesn’t seem to realise how lucky it is to have a few decent winter sports resorts. Admittedly, if it’s altitude you’re after, you’d be best going elsewhere, but for the cost, facilities and relative unspoilt nature of the resorts Korea should be a valid alternative to other more established destinations. In my view, however, Korea is not even on the map in terms of ski resorts, very few people would think of going to Korea for skiing, and I’m sure most companies that people would use to book a winter sports holiday won’t service Korea either. This needs to change, and the potential is all there. It’s also a location that offers more in terms of cultural discovery for most western tourists than Europe or North America. On top of that there’s also horse riding, water sports, snorkeling, SCUBA diving and so on.


Also, there are obviously certain specific sites that are unique to Korea, or add to Korea’s value as a tourist destination.

For me, one of the best has to be the lava tubes in Jeju-do, that UNESCO describes as being of “unequaled quality.” I’d add to this Hallasan, the volcano with the lake-filled crater in the centre of the island, simply for its aesthetic beauty.


For completely different reasons the DMZ is also entirely unique. It’s also the only remaining front of the Cold War, and has to be seen to be believed. I know some people have argued that something so sombre, important and serious shouldn’t be treated like a tourist attraction, and I can see where they’re coming from. My view, however, is that people should take the opportunity to see what one of the most devastating conflicts of the last century has done to the two countries, to see partially into a closed country, and to witness firsthand more of the current geopolitical state. It may be upsetting, but we have to learn about the major conflicts of more recent times, witness where they took place, the people who were involved, because it gives us an important perspective. For that same reason, I’m also a fan of the War Memorial Museum. The Korean War is known as ‘The Forgotten War’, but I think it’s about time something was done to change that. This museum goes above and beyond in that respect, dealing not only with the Korean War of the ’50s, but with a history of combat throughout the ages, making it fascinating, informative and very poignant. It also has value as it emphasises the role played by all who fought, as I think most people (who aren’t Koreaphiles) are aware of America sending troops, but not so aware of how many fought from other countries. In that sense, it still really is the Forgotten War, unfortunately.

Teardrop display from the War Memorial Museum, made from the dogtags of soldiers who fought in the Korean War

Teardrop display from the War Memorial Museum, made from the dogtags of soldiers who fought in the Korean War

When Koreans talk about the beautiful scenery or mountains in their country, and when this is the focus of marketing Korea, I feel it would pay dividends if people could be more specific about which mountains they are referring to. Firstly, there’s no reason to expect that a foreigner won’t be able to muster up at least a vague attempt at pronouncing the proper name, or remembering it. People manage to say “Mount Fuji”, right? Why not Mount Halla? Seorak Mountains? Saying Korea is 70% mountainous isn’t going to attract anyone, it’s also far too vague to give someone a decent impression of the terrain. Not all of Korea’s mountains are particularly beautiful or have certain appealing features. There needs to be an identification of the ones that do have a special appeal – Namsan looks out over the whole of the city, such and such mountain has lots of temples, or a beautiful waterfall, or a giant buddha statue. This approach has worked to some extent in China, and even more so in Japan. No country is entirely amazing; those charged with marketing Korea need to find the parts that they really wish other people could see, and then encourage it, with reasons. The same goes for temples and palaces. There are spectacular examples of both in Korea, and some with incredible histories. These should be made known known. The aim should be to have someone living in Australia, or France, or anywhere else, who’s never had any interest in Korea, to be able to say, “hey, there’s that big temple in Korea, it looks really impressive.” People can picture certain buildings in Japan, China, even if they don’t know the name or anything about them. Korea needs to try and achieve the same level of basic awareness and appeal globally for some of its sites.

Another potentially massive selling point for Korea is the food. It really is unique (again, forgive me for using that word so much – but it is), and it’s glorious! Why is Indian food so popular outside of India? Because it’s different, it’s spicy, and because Indian people move in numbers outside of India. It gets slightly adapted for the local palette, and becomes well known and well liked. India is famous for its food, and most people have never eaten Indian food in India. The same can be said for Japanese food, it’s unique, and has spread, and people think of the two together, despite probably never having eaten Japanese food in Japan. Again, Chinese food is the same. Surely Korea could also benefit from its cuisine becoming better known, better marketed, and better adapted outside of Korea.

I’ve heard that Korean food is quite popular and well-known in parts of North America, which bodes well, but in other parts of the world it’s definitely under-represented. For example, in my native London, the vast majority of customers in all the Korean restaurants are Korean. Of the ones I’ve been to, the one that is most popular among non-Koreans is the most expensive and the least authentic. But the Chinese food you get in London is generally not that authentic. Neither is the Indian. They adapt to succeed. In fact, there is one reasonably authentic and quite good Korean restaurant near Centre Point in London (called Assa for those who’re interested) that permanently has a sign in its window advertising for staff. It’s in Korean. Nothing wrong with hiring Koreans I suppose, but surely they’d have to be able to speak English to serve in a restaurant in London? And would it be that bad if a non-Korean worked there? This may just be a phenomenon that’s limited to Koreans in Britain, but the small Korean communities in Britain tend to be very insular, and often try and replicate a mini-Korea exclusive to the resident Koreans wherever they live. I’m not bemoaning this, I don’t even think it’s wrong, but there’s also nothing wrong with opening up to others around, and both welcoming them among you, and trying to establish yourself among them. In that way, I’m sure more interest could be generated in everyday things such as Korean food, etiquette and so.


But, if you can get people interested in the cuisine in Korea, why not encourage them to visit traditional markets. I’ve heard that some Koreans think that tourists should be discouraged from visiting these markets, as they might be a bit dirty and “backwards.” Ridiculous. They’re great fun, and nothing at all to be ashamed of. I know people who have never been to China know of it’s quirky street markets selling all kinds of wonderments, that would surely be perfectly mundane in China. The same should apply to Korea in my opinion. Folk villages are also great for getting some of the traditional culture and way of life, and what Korea was like before it became thoroughly “modernised.” I’d also obviously advocate Kyŏngju for the same reasons. Kyŏngju should take a leaf out of Kyoto’s book and emphasise the traditional aspects – come on, it’s fun!

That said, according to this article, Korea’s most popular tourist attraction in terms of number of visitors per year is actually Everland, and four of the most popular nine tourist attractions in East Asia (China, Korea, Japan, the article decides to just call this area ‘Asia’) are theme parks. Time to invest in Everland and Lotte World, methinks.

The first point of contact for most tourists to Korea will inevitably be the capital, Seoul, and many won’t even make it outside of the big city. But maybe they don’t have to.

  • Cheonggyecheon
  • Any of the futuristic-looking parts
  • The mountains around it
  • Cheap, efficient, clean subway – rivals any other in the world, surely
  • Temples/palaces – the old and new thing again

As you will see from this post, I’m fascinated by Korean shamanism, and I hate the way it’s been suppressed by Koreans. I cannot abide by those Koreans who think it’s “backwards” and doesn’t have a place in modern Korea. Jesus supposedly lived over 2000 years ago, and they can find a place for him, so live and let live, it’s part of the national history, culture and society. I also think this is exactly the sort of thing tourists would love to see, and not in a false, showy sort of way. Practicing shamans should be encouraged, and shamanistic sites should be protected, not destroyed. I also believe Korean shamans could find a place in the pop culture aspect as well.

Another draw is Buddhism. It’s always been flavoured with a sense of the exotic in the west, with some famous temples, warrior monks, meditation and so on. Korea has many brilliant temples, a long and vibrant Buddhist tradition, and this should be maintained, and potential tourists should be informed of it. Temple stays are also eye-opening experiences.

Final one, apologies for the length of this post again, and this one is quite possibly not at all viable, but it’s not my field. Here goes… Reintroduce tigers and bears to the countryside. That would be immense. Tigers are the national animal, and there aren’t even any left!

Male Sumatran tiger in the wild STCP 2000

Again, I’ve gone on for so long, I think it’s a suitable place to leave this post. There will be a third post that will deal with how the whole thing should be effectively marketed – the final stretch! Bear with me please, but until that’s up your comments are more than welcome!


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.