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[Op-Ed] New Korea Tourism Chief

Posted July. 30, 2009 08:20,   


German-born Lee Cham has been appointed to head the Korea Tourism Organization. Lee is the first naturalized Korean to be named to the leading post of a state-run agency. First arriving in Korea in 1978, Lee has frequently appeared on TV programs, including playing the head of the U.S. CIA’s Seoul branch in the MBC TV series “The Fifth Republic.” He has also advised companies and taught college courses. His appointment reflects the administration’s strong will to make the tourism organization more customer-oriented.

On the back of the strengthening yen, the number of foreign tourists, especially from Japan, has surged this year. Yet Korea remains relatively uncompetitive in the tourism industry. According to the World Economic Forum, Korea ranks 31st among 133 nations according to the tourism competitiveness index this year. The country’s competitiveness in the sector is far weaker than that of Hong Kong (12th) and Japan (25th). Korea’s tourism balance used to post a deficit of more than 10 billion U.S. dollars, but has recorded a surplus since October last year after overseas travel by Koreans plunged in the wake of the global financial crisis. The weakening won has also contributed to raising the tourism surplus.

The attractiveness of tourist spots is not dependent on natural or cultural resources. Italy has the largest number of World Heritage sites with 44, but ranks 28th in global tourism competitiveness. Moreover, Korea’s tourism environment is not disastrousm. It has 10 World Cultural sites designated by UNESCO, a world-class airport in Incheon, outstanding information technologies, efficient public transportation, and stable public security. What stands in the way of Korea’s tourism development are soft factors such as high prices and attitudes toward foreigners.

A survey said 53 percent believe Lee Cham is the foreigner possessing the best Korean qualities. In response, he said, “I’ve lived in Korea for more than 30 years, but Koreans still treat me as a foreigner,” hinting at a lack of cosmopolitanism in the country. He suggested appointing a foreigner as the director of the National Center for Korean Traditional Performing Arts, following the example of France, which hired Chung Myung-whun as musical director of Opera Bastille. Lee also said Korea should develop tourism content and further open itself to the world. Let us hope he can boost Korea’s tourism competitiveness.

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