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[Op-Ed] Tourism Boom From the Weak Won

Posted December. 15, 2008 10:08,   


With large and small streets inundated with Japanese tourists holding a shopping bag on one hand and a map of Seoul on the other, a visitor to the shopping district of Myeong-dong in downtown Seoul might for a second believe he or she is standing in the middle of Tokyo. The huge influx of Japanese tourists is certainly good news for the Korean economy, which is barely breathing on its own. Most Japanese tourists are eager to hit the stores and beauty parlors in Seoul instead of ancient palaces and museums, but armed with a strong yen, they are contributing to the Korean economy.

Last year, it was the other way round. Korean shoppers, inspired by the rise of the Korean won against the Japanese yen, flocked to shopping malls in Tokyo and Osaka. Many of the Korean shoppers, mostly young single women with jobs, indulged in weekend shopping sprees via charter flights to Tokyo early Saturday mornings that took them back to Seoul early Monday mornings. They went with empty suitcases that they filled with clothes, shoes and bags. The situation has been reversed in just a year. With the won-yen rate falling as low as 1,600 won per 100 yen, it is now Japan’s turn to send shoppers to Korea.

Korea is expected to post a record-high tourism surplus of 8.6 billion dollars this year thanks to the strong yen, which is in stark contrast to last year’s tourism deficit of more than 10 billion dollars. It might be too early to pop the champagne, however. Japanese tourists could lose interest in Korea given that the country has only bargain shopping and massages to offer, and so a strong yen might not be enough to bring them back to Seoul. In a survey conducted by the Korea Tourism Organization of Japanese tourists in 2004, 32.5 percent cited “lack of attractive tourist destinations” and 31.5 percent “communication difficulty” as reasons for not choosing Korea as their holiday spot.

If Korea is to sustain its tourism boom and enhance the competitiveness of its tourism industry, it must provide high quality content such as the popular 2002 Korean drama “Winter Sonata,” which attracted many Japanese fans to Korea. The content must have a story that touches people’s hearts. In a National Competitiveness Committee meeting held last week, the Korean government announced that it will strengthen the competitiveness of the tourism industry by developing tourism products from Korea’s unique ecosystem combined with culture, history and arts. This is a perfect example of thinking out of the box, which is precisely what the Korean tourism industry needs. It must develop new content going beyond what “Winter Sonata” offered. New content will lead to new stars, tourist destinations and tourism products.

Editorial Writer Chung Sung-hee (shchung@donga.com)