The tourism industry is showing signs of growth for the first time after a nine-year deficit, with the number of visitors increasing while outbound travelers dwindled due to the recession and the weak won.
The number of inbound tourists will likely reach 7 million on Monday and is expected to exceed 7.8 million by year's end. The industry achieved a surplus of US$320 million from January until September. The government is introducing a limited visa waiver program to lure more Chinese tourists.
But Chinese tourists, relatively new guests in Korea, have quite different tastes from the Japanese, who have already become customary visitors here. Japanese tourists account for 2.56 million or 39 percent of foreign tourists, while Chinese travelers account for 1.13 million or 17 percent. Experts call for special custom-made tourism strategies to lure as many Chinese tourists as possible.
◆ Japanese Tourists
According to a survey of visitors in 2008 by the Korea Tourism Organization, more women visited from Japan than men, with 61.9 percent to 38.1 percent. The proportion of individual tourists (38.3 percent) was close to that of group tourists. As the two countries are close geographically and Japanese have a lot of information on Korea, many there feel it is easy to visit without tour guides or prearranged package tours.
Japanese itineraries are often geared to women. Most of them include shopping in Myeong-dong, skincare in Apgujeong-dong or Samseong-dong, and visits to the Hanok or traditional Korean houses in the back alleys of Bukchon or trendy shops or cafes in Samcheong-dong -- all in Seoul.
A staffer at a beauty treatment shop in Myeong-dong, said, "Many Japanese tourists have cosmetic eyebrow tattoo procedures, manicure or laser body hair removal, which are much cheaper than in Japan." They also like Korean food. Some 69.5 percent of Japanese tourists said Korean food is delicious. Food topped the list of souvenirs they buy with a whopping 67.1 percent. Japanese tourists stayed in Korea briefly but spent a lot of money. Each of them stayed 2.7 nights and spent $1,136 ($420 per day) on average.
◆ Chinese Tourists
Chinese tourist stayed on average 6.8 nights and spent $1,413 ($207 per day). Many visited Korea for the first time and were on package tours with group visas. Hana Tour spokesman Chung Ki-yoon said, "Many Chinese tourists are on package tours of seven Southeast Asian countries."
The problem is that there is a gap between what the Chinese want to see and what Korea has to offer. In the survey, some 44.9 percent of Chinese visitors wanted to enjoy natural scenery, followed by 42.4 percent who wanted to go shopping. The ratio of those who wanted to look at nature in 2008 was down more than 10 points from 2007.
Haban Tour spokesman Woo Hyun-ryang said, "The Chinese are used to huge cultural monuments like Taishan, the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City, so they usually complain even Mt. Seorak is just like a hill at the back of their village." This means they need other special programs.
Chinese tourists from different regions also had very different tastes. Those from inland urban areas like Beijing preferred Jeju Island, while those from the booming industrial centers such as Guangzhou, Chengdu, or Shenyang liked to visit Myeong-dong and Dongdaemun shopping districts in Seoul. Rich Chinese visitors enjoyed buying designer goods at Lotte or Shinsegae department stores in Myeong-dong, Seoul, or at Centum City in Busan. Food is the biggest problem for the Chinese tourists, who usually complain that Korean food is not fatty enough for them.