SEOUL, April 4 (Korea Bizwire) – South Korea is ramping up support for the travel industry by enhancing its tourism infrastructure and tightening regulations on low-quality package programs to help shore up its slowing economy, officials and experts said Monday.
Helped by the popularity of Korean pop culture, the tourism industry has emerged as a prospective new driver in Asia’s fourth-largest economy on the back of an influx of Chinese travelers over the past few years. However, calls for better quality service and a wider range of options have risen in response to growing complaints related to substandard group tour programs.
The government has come under more pressure as South Korea’s tourism industry suffered a severe blow from the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak last year, in a stark contrast to Japan, which enjoyed a huge influx of travelers thanks to the cheap yen and easier visas.
The number of foreign travelers to South Korea slipped in 2015 for the first time in 12 years in the wake of the MERS outbreak, reporting a 6.8 percent on-year decline to 13.23 million visitors, the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) said.
To make up for last year’s shortfall, the government aims to draw 16.5 million inbound travelers this year and 20 million in 2017.’
As part of efforts to improve the quality of service, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said it has cracked down on 9,311 cases of substandard package programs from January 2014 to February this year. The number of complaints jumped from 2,368 in 2014 to 6,175 last year.
Last month, the ministry also revoked the licenses of 68 tour operators specializing in Chinese travelers for offering unreasonably cheap tour programs and hiring unqualified tour guides.
Experts say the rising number of complaints should serve as a wake-up call for the government and industry to put concerted efforts to upgrade the quality of the tourism industry.
“If the government puts too much focus on the number of visitors, it could give room for low-quality package programs,” said Lee Hun, a professor of Hanyang University. “It is time for the tourism industry to shift priority from quantity to quality.”
Foreign travelers mostly visit Seoul and the southern resort island of Jeju, with most of the destinations being duty-free and department stores, data showed.
They spent the biggest amount of money on shopping, with more than half of the 10.4 trillion won (US$9.02 billion) worth of credit card transactions by foreigners being related to shopping last year, according to the data compiled by the Korea Culture & Tourism Institute. Spending on tourism and leisure programs accounted for a mere 1.6 percent.
To encourage foreign visitors to have a variety of cultural experiences, a tourism promotion agency under the culture ministry recently launched an inter-city bus service that connects major tourist attractions in South Korea.
The “K-travel Bus” exclusively serves foreigners who want to travel outside the capital city, to boost travel to smaller cities and rural areas. Passengers can tour around the nation for two days for US$150-170, a trip that includes transportation, lodging, an English-speaking guide and admission fees.
Provincial governments have also upped the ante to take advantage of hit TV soap operas.
The provincial government of Paju, the filming site of the sensational TV series “Descendants of the Sun” in Camp Greaves, Sunday said it will turn the former U.S. military camp near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) into a foothold of the region’s tourism industry.
The culture ministry also announced plans to develop the former mining cities of Taebaek and Jeongseon in Gangwon Province, the main venues of the drama, into tourist destinations where visitors can experience both traditional and contemporary Korean culture.
Premiering simultaneously in South Korea and China on Feb. 24, “Descendants” has become the first Korean drama shown on weeknights to surpass 30 percent in nationwide viewership in four years.
Entertainment-themed tourism programs have proven highly profitable as shown in the recent visit by employees of China’s Aolan International Beauty Group.
Last week, the cosmetics company based in the southern Chinese province of Guangzhou sent a whopping 6,500 employees and valued customers to Incheon and Seoul for a weeklong tour. Their itinerary included a mass visit to the filming locations of the 2014 mega-hit soap opera “My Love from the Star,” including eating chicken and beer outdoors in Incheon, an event supported by the culture ministry and the provincial government.’
Thanks to their visit, duty-free shops that newly opened in Seoul, including HDC Shilla Duty Free and Hanwha Galleria, posted their record sales over the weekend since their opening earlier this year, according to companies.
The ministry said it will work with industry officials to upgrade tourism and the national image to better compete with other nations.
“The cheap group tours are not only unprofitable but also hamper the national image, which could cause damage in the long term. We have to change the tourism paradigm to focus on value-added programs,” a culture ministry official said. “We will continue the ‘smile campaign’ and conduct education programs involving taxi drivers, tour guides and restaurant employees to improve the national image among foreign travelers.”