The number of tourists visiting Korea is steadily increasing every year and is likely to exceed 10 million this week.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism on Sunday said a total of 9.46 million foreign tourists had arrived in Korea as of the end of October, and the number is expected to surpass 10 million around Wednesday this week. By the end of this year, the figure will be near 11.2 million.
The number of foreign tourists surpassed 10,000 in 1961, 1 million in 1978, and 5 million in 2000, rising 1,000 times in five decades. Korea ranked 25th in the world with 9.79 million foreign tourists in 2011, and, with the figure around 11.2 million at the end of this year, the ranking is likely to climb to 22nd or 23rd.
Part of the reason for the increase is the popularity of Korean TV soaps and pop music abroad, chiefly among Chinese travelers. Medical and so-called MICE -- meetings, incentives, conferencing and exhibitions -- tourism has also been posting 20 to 30 percent growth. The government hopes to attract 20 million tourists in 2020.
But experts say Korea's tourism industry still has a long way to go as it is still far behind its GDP, which ranks 15th in the world. The tourism industry contributed just 5.2 percent to GDP in 2011, way below the world average of 9.1 percent.
According to the Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index compiled by the World Economic Forum last year, Korea ranked 32nd out of 139 countries studied. In a 2011 survey by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, foreign tourists complained about the language barrier, lack of tourist information signs, traffic jams, food and pushy souvenir sellers.
The country has yet to see the enough economic spill-over effects from tourism, and people still shows prejudice toward foreign visitors and lack hospitality.
Although tourism revenues have doubled between 2005 and 2011 as numbers grew, spending by per tourist grew just 4.4 percent. Experts cite the trend toward budget trips and short stays.
Park Kwang-moo of the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, said, "Once the tourist number hits the 10-million mark, the global recognition of a country grows significantly and the number will accelerate from there. So Korea should try harder to serve tourists better and increase the return rate. It should also boost competitiveness by developing new tourist programs based on the unique history and culture of each region."