With more diverse groups of foreigners coming to Korea, some prefer creative tours to simple standard sightseeing. A German chef learns how to make tofu by grinding beans using a matdol, or millstone, during a multi-day culinary tour by O'ngo Food Communications. Provided by Daniel Gray
Inspection season is nerve-wracking for Lee Gil-su, an engineer at a company in Yeouido, central Seoul, who must examine stacks of assembled parts for export. Another dreaded task is coming up with itineraries for foreign clients visiting Korea.
"I had to greet a group of Iranian guests a couple of years ago", says Lee. "It was about the time almost all Iranian clients started their business e-mails with 'Dae Jang Geum'."
Aired on a national network in Iran, the period drama "Dae Jang Geum" set in the Joseon Dynasty amassed a whopping viewer rating of 86 percent. When the drama series aired in Korea in 2003 and 2004, it drew 55.5 percent of viewers.
"The Iranian guests wanted me to take them to Dae Jang Geum Theme Park as soon as they landed, so I picked them up and drove there, but I was shocked by how it looked", Lee says. "It seemed deserted. Except for a couple of life-size cardboard cutouts of leading actors and actresses, there was nothing except wrecked outdoor sets".
The 40-year-old engineer once thought about using travel agencies, but he didn't want to pay thousands of won for cookie-cutter tours.
Hooked, then lost
These days, Korea is again in the spotlight as a potential international tourist destination, thanks to "Gangnam Style" and the second wave of K-pop, according to Korea Tourism Organization (KTO).
A recent survey conducted by the United States branch of KTO found that 60 percent of 200 residents of Los Angeles and New York said they developed an urge to visit Gangnam after watching Psy's music video.
However, tourism experts say that other than shopping, the country doesn't have much more to offer tovisitors today that when Lee was ferrying his Iranian clients to the decrepit Dae Jang Geum Theme Park. And that means there are few reasons for foreign tourists to return.
"Korean tourism achieved rapid growth in terms of the number of tourists, higher than any other country", says Lee Hun, a professor of tourism at Hanyang University.
About a million foreigners visited Korea in 1978, and that number rose to 2.3 million in 1988 when Seoul hosted the Summer Olympic. This year, the KTO estimates the Korea will attract 11 million tourists.
"Korea has achieved growth in quantity, but it is hard to say that it has succeeded in increasing quality. We've come to a stage where we should think about turning quantitative growth into quality experiences", Lee adds.
In fact, seven out of 10 foreign tourists last year said they intend to visit Korea again, but a few of them return, the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute says. For instance, 43.7 percent of tourists were repeat visitors in 2009 and 39.2 percent in 2011.
"We should offer more cultural content in addition to sightseeing-oriented tour courses so we can induce foreign tourists to visit again", Lee continues.
Korea's major tour agencies offer similar packages, typically including Gyeongbok Palace, the National Folk Museum of Korea and Insa-dong, once an area of fine antique shops that is now brimming with shoddy purveyors of souvenirs and cosmetics.
"Think about it. A tour guide keeps telling you how Korean foods are nutritious and healthy. But if you can have a chance to learn how to make local food during your stay, it will make a huge difference", says a tour guide for North American businesspeople in Seoul for the past decade who asked to remain anonymous. "But most tour programs are quite stereotypical and lacking in creativity and originality".
The standard itineraries at Cosmojin Tour, which specializes in foreign VIPs, are not that different from those of other agencies. Palaces and long-running nonverbal performances like "Nanta" is where cash-rich, time-poor important guests head.
"Sometimes they drop by Opera Gallery in southern Seoul, but we don't have specialized art or culture tours for them yet", says Jason Kim, a public relations manager at PR Bridge on behalf of Cosmojin Tour.
People who work in the tourism industry say Korea needs destinations with stories to achieve sustainable growth in tourism.
"Ideas are needed if we really want to captivate foreign tourists", said Kang Woo-hyon, CEO of Nami Island, Gangwon, during lunch with a group of reporters a few months ago.
Nami Island attracted 2.3 million visitors last year and 420,000 of them were foreigners.
Before Kang arrived in 2001, however, Nami Island attracted about 260,000 people per year.
The island was a popular destination in 1970s and 1980s, but its appeal waned as central Seoul and other cities developed.
It didn't take long for the island to be littered with trash and soju bottles by binge drinkers.
By 2000, it was on the verge of bankruptcy.
However, Kang, who oversees the island for its private owner, saw cash in the trash left behind by all those partiers. Green soju bottles were pressed and made into tiles and the whole island was decorated with discarded items.
It didn't hurt that the island became famous throughout Asia when it was featured in the popular drama series "Winter Sonata" in 2002.
Dae Jang Geum Theme Park and Nami Island both were featured in popular drama series, but their similarities end there. The lack of a story was one of the reasons Dae Jang Geum Theme Park closed earlier this year, while Nami Island succeeded by rewriting its story from the remnants of failure.
"If Korea wants to mature as a tourist destination, it has to pay attention to the current trend", says Choi Kyung-eun, a researcher at Korea Culture and Tourism Institute. "People used to look around at sightseeing places and take photos. They found it pleasant because trips were not very common. But today, everyone leaves on a trip wanting to do something more than just watching.
"If we can work on this issue, it will make travelers visit this country again".
From left: Tasting street food is one way for foreigners to get to know Korea. Provided by Korea Tourism Organization; The Korean Night Dining Tour is inspired by hoesik, or the company outing. Provided by O'ngo Food Communications
Many of Korea's leading tour operators have a poor understanding of what visitors want, but some businesses are starting to think outside the box.
"Before winery tours were launched in the United States, nobody took American wine seriously", says Jia Choi, president of O'ngo Food Communications. "But Napa Valley winery tours added value to American wine. I wanted to make foreigners feel Korean culture with their hearts and hands, and that was the beginning of our food tour".
O'ngo Food Communications offers a wide range of food-related tours, such as one-day programs like the Korean Night Dining Tour, where travelers experience the drinking culture of Korea. The tour exposes participants to the hoesik, or company outing, culture of the nation. Not to mention boilermakers (beer and soju).
Another option is the Korean Taste Tour, where visitors sample street food and other tours that visit places like Noryangjin Fisheries Wholesale Market. The tour is fun and lively enough to change the minds of some foreigners, who prior to visiting the market would have refused to eat live small octopus. A guide accompanies group travelers and explains the roles of a variety of food in Korean culture and the proper way to indulge in street food.
"It is a whole different experience if you visit a museum by yourself or look around the museum with a curator", says Choi.
O'ngo started to offer food tours in 2008. The company name comes from a Chinese phrase ongojisin, which roughly translates to revitalizing tradition through modernization. The company also offers multi-day food tours where travelers can learn the basic components of Korean food. The tour includes visits to farms and a kimchi factory, and is popular among foreign chefs.
At TripAdvisor, O'ngo's food tours rank first, ahead of such tourist staples as Gyeongbok Palace, Insa-dong and Itaewon.
An American professor identified as Tony R. wrote, "O'ngo Food was a perfect introduction to Seoul".
Such rave reviews have helped the company grow bigger and more stable.
"Sales used to be dependent on the seasons, but now we are immune to seasonal factors", says Choi, who has a Ph.D. in food and nutrition.
"The best thing about this work is when we see travelers who return to Korea. After the food tour, they plan a trip to Busan and Jeju.
"After all, nobody wants to see Gyeongbok Palace again".
By Sung So-young [email@example.com]
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2015 51st PaekSang Arts Awards