On Korea tourism and promoting the country through foreigners

If this sounds like a repeat of this story (and post), it's not :)

While not precisely linked to the recently-ended VANK contest (and the wonderful prizes won by 100 bloggers about Korea), far more needs to be done to encourage tourism in Korea.

As you might have guessed from reading my blog, travel is a subject near and dear to me - and for obvious reasons tourism is part of that equation. This article from the Korea Times reminded me that tourism is a difficult nut to crack. One excerpt:
In the past, a seeming lack of grounded foreigner input has been a downfall in campaigns, according to an international studies professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

"I don't think they've ever talked to foreigners and got a test run before they began implementing the campaigns," said Brandon Walcutt, an eight-year resident, about the older marketing attempts.

"There are cultural differences in what they're trying to do and how it's being perceived. Like 'Korea Sparkling,' that campaign hasn't really been well coordinated. Sparkling? What are we selling, water?"

Both Seoul City and the KTO confer with foreigners on their campaigns, though in varying degrees. Seoul City began foreigner consultations on its marketing strategies in 2008, and the KTO refers to overseas consultation firms for its larger projects, such as the aforementioned brand "Korea Sparkling."

Another problem could be the multiple campaigns that overcrowd the market. Seoul City and the KTO both attempt to attract tourists to the capital and the country, while smaller cities in Korea vie for other titles of recognition. Changwon hopes to become the environmental capital while Incheon strives to be the next big business hub of Asia.

"There are so many diversified efforts which are going on," said Choi Jungh-wa, president of the Korea Image Communication Institute, which works on creating a representative image of the nation abroad.

Lots of efforts, yes - but which ones are successful at actually bringing people in? Is the Seoul Grand Sale actually bringing people in that otherwise weren't going to come to Korea? The coupon book (pick one up at the airport or from tourist information centers, among other places) is thick but not overly impressive. Travel all around Myeongdong to find the shop that will accept the 10% off coupon or the place offering a free gift for your trip there? Without directions in some cases? The biggest discounts, as you might expect, are on the four- and five-star hotels - presumably similar the same type of discounts that visitors may already be getting for AAA membership, the 'corporate' discount, or the like.

Foreigners currently in Korea are an undervalued resource for tourist organizations. Considering foreign residents will travel the country far more than a tourist will during their respective times here, you'd think that it would comprise at least a train of thought. However, if the tourism organizations can't do it, the private sector will certainly pick up the slack - Adventure Korea seems to be doing quite well for itself, while other groups on Facebook like Uber Rad Life plan interesting events as well (you may have heard about the Mass Freeze that a few other bloggers attended).

To be fair, both Seoul city tourism and the Korea Tourism Organization have been including foreigners in their consultations to some extent. While not every suggestion need be implemented simply because a foreigner said it, suggestions about how something might be perceived or understood must be examined. The 'Korea Sparkling' slogan would never have passed if the foreigner voice was heard - 'what are we marketing, water?' - and not overruled by someone else down the line.

Yet we expats aren't the best at knowing what tourists want or need. It's difficult to put ourselves in the mindset of just arriving, not knowing the language or how to read hangeul, and not knowing where anything is located. It's from that perspective that a tourist approaches a new country - if you want to experience this sort of culture shock, try researching official tourist websites for other countries. I'm sorry to say that the 'official' one - the one run by the government's tourism department - is harder to find than you think.

That there have been some recent improvements that give me hope. There is a foreigner in charge of the KTO (Charm Lee), who can create opportunities for foreigners to help out. I understand that the official Seoul Tourism website will be getting upgraded in the coming months, and for what it's worth, there is an essay contest out there for foreigners in Seoul. Grand prize is 2,000,000 won - and there's plenty of other cash prizes to be won.

Readers: You are the new director / president / leader of Korea Tourism. How would you spend your first week on the job? How can tourism around Korea improve?


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