일본인 와타나베씨 부부는 이틀 전 부푼 기대를 갖고 한국을 찾았다. 최근 다녀왔던 친구들이 적극 추천한데다, 먼 해외 여행지보다 저렴하게 관광을 즐길 수 있을 거란 기대감 때문이었다. 하지만, 이들 부부는 예상보다 많은 지출에 놀랐다고 한다. 특히, 이들의 초과 지출한 돈이 대부분 택시비였다는 사실이 더욱 충격적이었다고 한다. 문제는 이들뿐만 아니라 우리나라를 찾는 외국인 관광객들의 대부분이 불편사항으로 택시와 쇼핑을 꼽은 것이다.
얼마 전 한국관광공사는 2009년 한해 동안 관광불편신고센터에 접수된 사항을 분석해 발표했다. 그 결과 쇼핑과 택시에 관련 한 불편사항이 가장 많았다.
신고내용을 살펴보면 외국인의 경우, 탁송지연 및 내역오류 등 쇼핑관련 불편사항이 152건(32.5%)으로 가장 많았고, 부당요금 징수 및 미터기 사용거부 등 택시 관련 사항이 82건(17.5%)으로 뒤를 이었다. 또 숙박 관련 불편사항도 41건 (8.8%)으로 나타났다.
Two days ago, Motoko Watanabe and her husband arrived in Seoul from their hometown in Shizuoka prefecture, Japan. Since hearing of close friends` pleasant experiences in Seoul, they figured the short trip to Korea would give them the most bang for their buck.
But what was supposed to be an affordable three days of sightseeing and shopping around the popular shopping districts Myeong-dong and Namdaemun, turned into a budget buster the middle-class newlyweds did not anticipate.
Did they go overboard gorging on sumptuous hanwoo while impulsively buying Yonsama socks and Louis Vuitton handbags?
According to Motoko, the couple spent a third of their travel budget on taxis. "We don`t know our way around so it feels as though we`ve been wasting money and spending more than necessary on taxis," she said. "Sometimes it feels like we`re going in circles when we`re in cabs."
She`s not alone in her gripes about taxis.
A recent survey conducted by the Korea Tourism Organization shows that the number of calls made by disgruntled tourists in 2009 saw a 13.4 percent increase from the previous year.
Of the complaints, difficulties while shopping and disputing costs of taxi fares topped the list with 32.5 percent and 17.5 percent of the total 468 complaints filed.
"Our experience was pleasant up until we walked out of the key attractions around the city," Watanabe said. "It was when we hopped into a taxi and began getting around town that our trip became unpleasant. We really feel as though we spent twice the amount of our travel budget, and I hate it. In their defense, the drivers just say they don`t understand what we`re saying, but I find it personally inconvenient. It`s made me disdainful of the drivers here."
When asked about taxi scams, Baek Ki-chun, 62, a taxi driver, was quick to defend his profession.
"That was only during the old days when you saw drivers hanging around the airport looking for people to rip off," he said. "Nowadays, we don`t do stuff like that to tourists, because we care very much about giving the best impression possible of our country to foreign guests when they visit."
Baek, a 15-year veteran, conceded later that there might be some who take advantage of tourists. "Look, in countries like Japan, you don`t see drivers committing such shameful acts because their drivers get all the proper employee benefits and a respectable salary, regardless of how many passengers they get per day," he said.
"Here in Korea, they tried to implement something similar when DJ (former President Kim Dae-jung) was around, but it never happened because people started saying drivers would just slack off without making their rounds, so the government decided to scrap the whole idea.
"The only thing we have to rely on is getting as many passengers in a day as possible in order to meet our quota. So I can understand when some drivers get desperate enough to commit disgraceful acts like that."
Veteran taxi drivers in Seoul that reach their monthly quota earn about 1 million won ($876) a month, according to the latest data.
Yumi, a 20-year-old college student from Tokyo, came to Seoul with her friend Kumiko on Wednesday. "I think at times when taxi drivers figure out we`re Japanese, they ask for more fare," she said. "Another thing we worry about is miscommunication and whether we can calculate our money accurately."
"Overall though, it`s been really fun because so many (Korean) employees around the shops here speak Japanese and we`ve especially been enjoying the food."
Complaints from Westerners aren`t as numerous.
According to the KTO`s Byun Eun-hye, who works with the organization`s complaint center, the majority of the reports regarding shopping mishaps were filed by Japanese and Chinese tourists.
"We`ve gotten numerous calls from Japanese tourists saying they received the wrong orders such as shoes that were not the size they had purchased or custom tailored clothes that didn`t fit when they received them - or even bizarre instances where they purchased a cosmetic product only to find something entirely different once they opened the box," she said.
Ben, a freelance writer from the United States walking through Myeongdong, said in the three years he`s lived in Korea, he has not once been taken advantage of by a taxi driver.
"I`ve never been ripped off by a cab driver," he said.
He said he`s been met with nothing other than goodwill when shopping. "I`m with friends most of the time I shop. And when I`m with them, they help me reduce prices on certain items and sometimes the guy selling it gives me a discount before I even ask."
The KTO`s Byun thinks most complaints, regardless of where they come from, are caused by simple miscommunication.
"I don`t think incidents are caused from ill-will on behalf of merchants. I think this boils down to miscommunication."
With a boom over the past decade in inbound tourists, Korea`s tourism industry has spent billions of won training staff and erecting Chinese, English and Japanese signage.
Some Koreans have been saying for years that foreign tourists should be expected to possess a minimum level of Korean. Others ask for better English education in the travel industry here, citing Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East as places where locals communicate with tourists primarily in English, rather than in their own local languages.
"It`s difficult to say whether we are trying too hard to cater and to accommodate foreign tourists and not encouraging them more to try and speak Korean," said Kang Oki, the Korea Tourism Organization`s executive director of public relations.
"I know that when I travel abroad and I see a leaflet or information booklet with a section translated into Korean, I feel good and feel even welcomed. I believe there`s no harm in that," she added.
"As for the complaints about shopping filed by tourists, I just think that means people are shopping a lot. And not every transaction is going to be flawless or pleasant. That just isn`t realistically possible."
On whether the KTO is being overly sensitive with their survey, Kang said "We just want to work hard to try to provide the most pleasant experience for our visitors."
In spite of the increase in gripes filed with the KTO`s complaint center, it should be noted that 2009 set a benchmark figure for inbound tourists, reaching over 7 million people for the first time in the nation`s history.
The KTO also has plans to establish a certification system for shops that excel in customer service and satisfaction, although it is not certain when the system will be implemented. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
By Song Woong-ki