March 24, 2016 08:21
Tourists from the Middle East are becoming big spenders in Korea. The number of visitors from the region doubled from 89,200 in 2010 to 168,300 last year. Visitor numbers from the oil-rich UAE alone surged four-fold to 9,490 last year.
The surge is mostly due to the popularity of Korean TV soaps in the Middle East, which has also boosted the number of visitors for plastic surgery and medical check-ups. Per-capita spending among Middle Eastern tourists stands at US$3,056 compared to the average $1,605 per tourist.
"Middle Eastern tourists come either with their whole family or other attendants and usually stay long-term, and they then recommend Korea to others," said an official at the Korea Tourism Organization.
At the Four Seasons Hotel in downtown Seoul, around five percent of guests are from the Middle East, but they often book the luxury suites and the amount each spends is some 10 times more than the average tourist, according to staff.
More hotels in Korea are offering halal food, place a copy of the Koran in rooms and lay out prayer carpets.
Ahn Joo-yeon at the Westin Chosun said, "We place a qibla, which points to Mecca, in our rooms for Middle Eastern tourists who pray five times a day and remove alcoholic drinks from refrigerators."
The InterContinental Seoul Coex in Gangnam hired a Jordanian chef. The Four Seasons even set up a separate kitchen in its suites to cater to Middle Eastern visitors who often bring their own cooks.
But many come here for profane reasons, not least plastic surgery.
Hyun Se-jung at JK Plastic Surgery Center in Gangnam said, "Middle Eastern clients usually opt for the anti-aging and body-sculpting packages that cost between W30 million to W50 million." (US$1=W1,163) "Some even take the W100 million luxury package."
Some clinics provide Rolls-Royces to pick up and drop off their ostentatious Middle Eastern clients. Lotte Department Store is preparing a package that puts Middle Eastern tourists in touch with cosmetic clinics in Gangnam.
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