Korea has been yawning into the new century but sometime over the last decade or so it has managed to wake up. The land of millennial dynasties and unquestioning respect is finding a comfort zone in becoming a modern world player on all fronts while keeping solid and healthy roots in its Confucian past.
A bird's eye view of Seoul, the medieval and now modern capital of Korea
This momentum includes tourism, which has a new face and a new attitude keeping the speed and direction apace from on high.
Charm Lee, a German-born Korean resident, took over as the head of the Korean Tourism Organization in late July—an appointment made at the top levels of government in Korea. As a foreign-born figure, Lee notes his face is really the new face and true face of Korea: the Korea that is open, accepting and made up of an amalgam of cultures and influences.
Lee’s eclectic background allows him to tackle the challenges of the country’s tourism marketing goals from a variety of angles. With a graduate degree in theology from a U.S. university and a track record in business management and media over the past quarter century in Korea, Lee is able to wax poetic over Korea’s mystical beauty as well as the country’s potential as a first-rate tourism destination given the right messaging.
Lee Charm, new CEO of the Korea Tourism Organization
“Making complicated things easy, that is the genius of the Korean culture,” says Lee. “Take the alphabet, for instance. You can learn to read in Hangeul in 20 minutes.”
Lee can go on for hours about the the architecture of the alphabet and the philosophies of Korean scholars, which pervade colors, tastes and sounds throughout the culture. For at least 1,000 years all the kings were philosophers, not generals, and the sensibilities of those monarchs focused on balance—the balancing of all things in nature, he says.
“We want to project the image of Korea as a special culture. Most people do not have a sense of what this is. There is no iconic wall or Peking Duck dish to bring to mind. Just a little Taikwando and some modern dramas, but not much else,” Lee says. “So trying to explain this specialness is our challenge. Why come to Korea? To recharge your energy because there is more energy in Korea than anyplace else. It’s not just in the cities but also in the nature. Korean mountain spots have power zones like no place else.”
That the Korean language, in characters and sounds, can be taught to an outsider in less than an hour is just one of the magical elements Lee underscores in explanations of what there is to discover about the destination.
“There are mist-shrouded mountains, another Oriental painting behind every bend along these paths; there are rocks and crevices vibrating with mystical energies only known to shamans until recent years; there are remote walking paths flanked by temples where you find rare energized and sacred soils on paths that you can walk for 20 kilometers or more in bare feet. This is the Korea I know and I want visitors to know about.
“Korea is a society that recharges and reinvents itself constantly. Thirty years ago it was a military dictatorship with a startup economy. Today it is a very sophisticated and world-class country—you can get anything here. It’s very Oriental but at the same time very open—a unique place where a new kind of multicultural society is emerging. Korea is a fusion culture already so the idea of getting a German man to become head of a major government institution—how can this happen? But my face is now part of the face of Korea.”
Indeed, in a nutshell, those less familiar with this region would find Korea a stone’s throw from Japan, connected as a peninsula to China’s eastern flank. Its weather is on par with Beijing and its culture is possibly as old as China’s. It’s pocked with UNESCO World Heritage sites, dotted by mountains and barbed at its northern borders by watch stations and wires in a stalemate of statesmanship with its retro Communist northern half.
Tourists come to Korea at the rate of nearly 7 million a year (aiming for 8 million in 2009), mostly from Japan and China, then the U.S. (at 600,000). The business sector sees the majority of visitors and only 11 percent so far come for leisure and entertainment. This is what Lee hopes to increase, he says, as rural and urban tourism infrastructures grow and programs afar for inbound travel take hold.
To market Korea to the U.S. market, the KTO has designated 2010 to 2012 as Visit Korea Years.
“During these years we are planning many ways to make Korea more attractive to inbound travelers. Many mega events will be organized during this year, for example, Yeosu Expo 2012 in the southwestern city of Korea,” says In Sook Lee, deputy director of the KTO’s Los Angeles headquarters.
Specifically for travel agents, the office is launching a campaign to create more interest in stopover stays. Under this promotion, it will be giving special incentives to travel agents based on the total number of passengers they book for transit and stopover tours through the end of the year, at a rate of $10 per passenger.
“As such we expect that travel agents will focus on promoting transit and stopover tours to Korea,” says Lee.
Stopovers account for 20 percent of the U.S. presence in Korea with the vast majority visting Seoul en route to or from Thailand.
The lush road leads to Seonamsa Temple near Mt. Jogyesan in the Southern section of the country
On the whole, U.S. tourists stay an average of 9.7 nights and spend around $2,000.
Identified attractions run from non-verbal theater performances, such as the popular Nanta show—reminiscent of Blue Man Group except the performers are chefs with spoons and bowls. Seoul is known for its outrageous nightlife, 24-hour shopping scenes, new casino action and medical tourism facilities. And there is the old Korea, nearly overrun with castle keeps and temples, old houses and villages, and fabulous museums. The 38th parallel area, easily visited via fast highway (or train) from Seoul in less than an hour, is awash in museums, statues, viewing decks and living history for any visitor to ponder. Tourist hotels throughout the country run the gamut, from five-star gems such as the Shilla and Lotte to simple temple stays in private, quiet quarters. Food is fun and often healthy—fresh, exotic vegetables and relishes, tonic soups, green teas, rice and fresh grilled meats laid out in tapas-like spreads on low tables. Deals abound in dining, lodging and shopping, even in times of a weakened dollar. Rough English is widely spoken and a model public transportation system puts the entire length of South Korea in reach within only a few hours.
For more information call (323) 634-0280 or visit Korea Sparkling at http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/index.kto.