The Seoul Metropolitan Government has been recruiting taxi drivers exclusively for foreign tourists since 2009 with the aim of preventing rip-offs and improving convenience.
Cab drivers must pass a proficiency test in English, Japanese or Chinese to drive the taxis, which are identified by a sign saying "International Taxi" on their doors. Seoul is the only Korean city with such a program.
Tests are administered whenever a shortage of drivers looms and consist of a written and spoken section.
"Recently there's been an increase in Chinese tourists and we've seen taxi drivers who already hold English or Japanese qualifications taking Chinese tests as well," a test administrator said.
The program did not attract many drivers when it was first implemented because not many of them had the time to study another language after long hours of driving. But this has been changing due to the prolonged slump, since driving taxis for foreign tourists can generate higher revenues than driving ordinary cabs.
Such taxis have exclusive designated spots at the airport. They charge a flat rate, which guarantees them at least W55,000 even if they travel a short distance, plus a 20-percent markup on ordinary cabs (US$1=W1,102).
Foreigners often hire these taxis for the whole day, which costs more than W200,000. If there are no foreigners, they can take locals as well but have to charge normal fares.
Kim Chun-deuk (60), who has been driving a taxi for seven years, said, "It's easier to pick up customers at the airport and we get more long-haul customers as well. I also have regular customers who ask for me whenever they visit Korea."
Seoul operates around 380 such taxis and keeps numbers at that level, and less than 60 percent of applicants pass the test. Last year, only 48 out of 82 new applicants passed the exam. The number of foreigners using the taxis has been growing every year.
A Seoul city official said, "Since 2010, the number of foreigners visiting Seoul has increased 12.9 percent on average each year, so the number of drivers will rise as well."