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[Editorial] Foreign tourist extortion

A surge of foreign tourists, most conspicuously from China and Japan, is an encouraging thing in otherwise generally bleak economic environment these days.

As the Chinese government allowed overseas tourism for residents of cities first and then gradually eased travel restrictions, Korea emerged as one of the most popular destinations because of its geographical and cultural proximity. Travelling in Korea, the Chinese witness political and economic advancement of Koreans and visualize the future of their rapidly developing country. The popular Korean dramas and idol groups continue to lure tourists from China, Japan and other Asian countries to their origin.

The number of foreign tourists to Korea almost doubled from a little over 5 million at the turn of the century to close to 10 million last year. A serious shortage of tourist accommodation has sparked a hotel construction boom in Seoul. Merchants in Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets have had significant business upswing and so have cosmetics makers and dealers, apparel outlets and duty free shops.

Doctors at plastic surgery clinics in Gangnam who for some time struggled after buying expensive imported equipment are coming out of financial hardships thanks to the growing number of foreign clients. They were informed that the enviable beauty of Korean women appearing in TV dramas and in Seoul streets was due largely to the great skills of these doctors and the good quality of Korean cosmetics.

Yet, we are dismayed that these plastic surgery clinics charge different rates for local and Chinese customers, demanding from the latter almost double the amount that local customers pay. Similar embarrassing stories are heard about taxi drivers and proprietors of karaoke bars and “pojangmacha” sidewalk taverns.

In an extreme case, a “call van” taxi driver extorted 330,000 won (about $3,000) from a middle-aged Japanese tourist after she took a 2 kilometer trip. A young Japanese couple paid 50,000 won for two bottles of beer and a dish of fried kimchi ― three times the normal price. Some angry tourists complained of seeing higher prices in foreign language menus.

As everyone sees the dramatic improvement of toilet facilities in Korea from around the time of the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which Korea hosted jointly with Japan, it is rather natural that things in a developing society like Korea, particularly the service industry, get better rather than worse over the passage of time; people become kinder and businesses offer better value.

Then why these reports of so many bad apples? In Japan, where some men were not happy about women’s fascination with Korean entertainers, Internet users questioned whether they would still visit Korea to risk such outrageous treatment.

“Hallyu or not, Korea is still the same,” one blogger commented. We do not know how properly to respond to such outbursts.

“Arrogance” is what we detect in these affairs. The nation endeavored humbly for decades to attract foreign tourists to boost income, a hard task for a country with few of the world’s natural and historical wonders and cut off from the main global traffic routes. Whether it is because of Korea’s rising international stature or the success of Hallyu or simply because of the massive increase of Chinese travelers, the Korean tourism market is being fired up. And people in the industry have become audacious too quickly.

Many local autonomous bodies are competitively trying to refine their natural resources to attract domestic and foreign tourists and dedicated officials like Korea Tourism Organization head Lee Cham have provided ingenuous policies on the national level. Yet, their efforts will be futile if merchants here are engrossed in conning tourists.

The central government and particularly the authorities of the metropolitan Seoul need to render more administrative support to establish better tourism hardware as well as software. For instance, we may suggest Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon take a walk through the Insa-dong alley one evening. It was commendable that the city banned vehicle traffic from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. through the tourist-packed road. But it is so dimly-lit at night that few unfamiliar tourists would venture there.