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Korea Aims to Attract 20 Million Foreign Tourists in 2020

#Key Business Issue l 2020-01-27


In Korea, this year’s Lunar New Year holiday lasted from January 24th to 27th. According to an analysis of domestic tours during the period, Gangwon Province saw the largest number of inbound travelers on the first day of the traditional holiday. Meanwhile, China’s Lunar New Year holiday, also known as Spring Festival, continues through January 30th. Many Chinese tourists have taken trips to South Korea, with more than 30-thousand Chinese travelers visiting the Korean resort island of Jeju alone. 

As the tourism industry has revitalized from the beginning of the year, the Korean government aims to attract 20 million tourists from overseas in 2020. Today, we’ll discuss the possibility of Korea achieving the landmark figure with Professor Kim Cheol-won from Kyung Hee University’s College of Hotel and Tourism Management. 

I think the possibility is quite high. The diplomatic friction between South Korea and China over Korea’s deployment of a U.S. anti-missile defense system shows signs of abating, while it is reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Seoul in March. 

About 8 million Chinese tourists visited South Korea in 2016, but the number nearly halved in 2017, following the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD system in Korea. Fortunately, the number rebounded last year. 

Last year, there were many difficulties, including the THAAD row and historical conflict between South Korea and Japan. But Korea’s successful market diversification and a weakening Korean currency, which induced foreigners to spend more in Korea, contributed to drawing many foreign visitors. The 2019 number of foreign tourists reached 17.5 million. Given the positive development last year, I think it is possible for Korea to host 20 million foreign tourists this year. 

In 2019, the number of international tourists to South Korea hit an all-time high of 17.5 million, surpassing the previous annual record of 17.24 million set in 2016. The figure 17.5 million translates to one international tourist visiting Korea per 1.8 seconds over the course of the year. In fact, Korea saw the number of inbound tourists fall to 13.34 million in 2017 before it rebounded to 15.35 million in 2018. But how did the number reach a record high in 2019? 

The local tourism industry used to depend heavily on China and Japan. It is little wonder that the industry suffered from the aftermath of diplomatic and historical conflict between the two neighboring countries in recent years. 

But the Korean government has actively supported the efforts to draw tourists from various other regions such as Southeast Asia, Europe and the Middle East. As a result, Korea has become less dependent on China and Japan but diversified its tourist portfolio

The Chinese government banned group tours to South Korea and prohibited all hallyu content in China in 2017 as part of its retaliation against Korea’s decision to deploy the U.S.-led missile defense system. That year, the number of Chinese visitors to South Korea fell drastically. The figure recovered to 6 million last year, but it still falls short of the previous level. To make matters worse, the number of Japanese tourists declined last year, due to Japan’s economic retaliation against South Korea and Korea’s “Boycott Japan” movement. 

Under the difficult circumstances, the Seoul government worked hard to attract individual tourists from China and diversify the inbound tourism market. The strategy proved successful. A record number of foreign tourists visited South Korea in 2019, while the nation’s tourism account deficit from January to November last year decreased by 5.5 billion US dollars year-on-year to reach 9.56 billion dollars. Encouraged by the positive result, the Korean government is devising plans to make the country an attractive tourist destination. 

With a goal of drawing 20 million foreign visitors this year, the government has made various strategies. For instance, the government is working to turn one of the country’s metropolitan cities into a global tourist destination and nurture four local cities as regional tourism hubs. One of the problems of Korean tourism is that tourists are concentrated in two regions—Seoul and Jeju Island. The government will spend 45 million dollars over the next five years to develop one metropolitan area, other than Seoul and Jeju, into an international tourist city. 

This year, the Korean government will continue to draw hallyu fans to Korea by expanding K-pop performance halls and holding K-pop concerts frequently. It will also come up with measures aimed at encouraging tourists to visit various parts of the country, not just Seoul. In addition, it will capitalize on the nation’s strong technological edge to create interesting programs that allow tourists to experience Korean cultural relics through virtual reality. 

The increasing number of foreign tourists is estimated to generate production worth 41 billion dollars and 460-thousand jobs. But analysts point out that current plans have some limitations. 

Korea needs to create feasible tourism contents by developing tour programs that better represent regional characteristics. Local governments have often attempted to benchmark successful foreign examples. But it turned out that their programs were not competitive enough and lacked their own peculiarity, as they are mostly similar. 

Even if foreign tourists want to travel around every nook and cranny of Korea, they lack information about local regions and can’t find reviews about them on social networking services. These days, it is essential to introduce things on SNS and tourism should be promoted in the context of the so-called “access economy.” Lack of such efforts to approach consumers is one of the problems faced by Korean tourism. 

The chronic problem of Korea’s tourism industry is that tourism contents are not enough. The nation is abundant in things to eat and see all year round, but tourism information is limited to Seoul and Jeju. It comes as no surprise that a majority of tourists stay in these two regions. 

Another problem is depending too much on foreign examples and not developing appealing programs unique to each region. These days, more and more tourists want to experience the lives of local people in particular regions and feel attracted to something natural and personal. Some are eager to pay more as long as they feel satisfied. For others, saving time is considered highly important. In line with the changing tourist trends, Korea’s tourism policy should change as well. 

Tour programs should be developed systematically. It is necessary for local governments to find out any problems in their regions and correct them so people are willing to visit, live in and invest in the regions. Only when tourism infrastructure and contents are improved, will tourists come to the regions and feel it is worth visiting. Also, tourists pursue greater psychological satisfaction, compared to money they spend. It’s necessary to develop tourism contents to fulfill this desire. 

Back in 1962, the number of foreign tourists to South Korea was a mere 15-thousand. In six decades, the nation achieved remarkable economic development. Based on its great potential, Korea should make more efforts to turn the country into an ideal tourist destination, where international tourists can get information easily, move around conveniently, enjoy various contents and quality services, feel like visiting over and over again and the more they visit, the happier they feel.

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