Nonsense, horsefeathers, and idle musings from a decade in South Korea (2002-2012).

05 February, 2011

The Problem of Tourism for South Korea

By Aaron
05 February, 2011

In a recent series of pieces, Michael "The Metropolitician" Hurt takes Korea's tourism promoters to task for their lack of success in promoting Korea as a tourist destination. In essence, Hurt argues that building a successful Korean tourism brand will require that Korean promoters overcome what he calls their "ethnocentric myopia." That is, as Hurt puts it, Koreans tend not to know what foreigners like about Korea and, worse, don't know that they don't know this. As a result, promotional campaigns for Korean tourism tend to tout things such as breakdancers, Korean celebrities that no one outside of Korea knows, and factories producing cars or semiconductors - none of which is likely to persuade a family in Michigan to forego that trip to the Great Wall of China in favor of Gyeongbuk Palace in Seoul.

Despite his frustration, Hurt - who is a member of what he calls the "mostly-symbolic" Presidential Commission on Nation Branding - clearly sees potential in Korea as a tourist destination and feels that, if done right, a tourist promotion campaign is worthwhile. While I agree with almost all of Hurt's criticisms of the current campaigns, I'm skeptical of his optimism for future improvements.

Before proceeding, however, I should note that I find Korea to be a fascinating country and my family and friends who've visited all seemed to enjoy themselves. That said, the aspects of South Korea that attract me - such as its relations with North Korea and its recent economic development - are precisely those things which the Korean tourism authorities do not want to emphasize. After all, who wants to visit a recently-poor country that could find itself embroiled in a nuclear war at any time? There aren't many of us.

But anyway...

What if Korea simply has no comparative advantage in tourism? That is, what if tourists simply will never come to Korea in any great number (i.e. not enough to make the investment in tourism promotion pay for itself), regardless of how much money the Korean National Tourism Organization (KNTO) spends and no matter how well-designed (say, by Hurt's standards) the campaign may be? And, other than on the basis of pride, why should this matter?

Even countries that do attract large numbers of tourists (such as the United States) do not attract them equally to all areas. For example, millions of people travel to Colorado each year to ski or hike; millions of others to famous cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles; still others head for the beaches in Florida or the casinos of Las Vegas. But very few tourists ever bother with Oklahoma City, or Portland, or Pittsburgh. This doesn't mean that the latter are bad places - in fact, folks who live there seem to enjoy their hometowns very much - but they simply are not tourist meccas, and probably never will be.

Why should the globe be any different? Just as certain areas within countries have an edge in attracting tourists, so too will certain countries have an edge over other countries. Isn't it enough to know that Korea has a strong economy, a good and rising standard of living, and an ever-improving quality of life? Is there anything wrong with Korea being the "Portland" of the world, as it were?

Of course, tourist attractions can be created where none before existed. Witness Disneyland, the casinos of Vegas, the golf courses of Arizona, or the Great Wall of China (which, ironically, was built to keep "tourists" out). These places lure tourists who, absent those attractions, never would have visited. But it is neither the job nor the competency of the KNTO, or of the government in general, to try to design and build tourist attractions (not that the government doesn't try). The KNTO can only promote what already exists.

All of which likely sounds a tad defeatist - as though I'm saying the KNTO should just close up shop - which is not my intent. I simply worry that when government projects do not succeed, the answer is too often to simply dump more money into them. Not enough tourists coming to Korea? Double the budget! I would simply like to know what exactly is the maximum amount that the KNTO is willing to spend on its tourist promotion campaigns, a point beyond which it would not go even if the money were available. At what point do we say, "Korea just isn't a tourist destination?"