May is the best sightseeing season in Northeast Asia. The economic rise of China pushes the tourism market in the region to an explosive growth. Combining these two factors, a tourism rush is expected across the region in the coming weeks. Yet, we have a sense of unease about the state of readiness in this particular service sector.
These days, the Japanese, Chinese and South Koreans are thronging to each other’s tourism resorts and large cities, joined by American, European and Southeast Asian travelers. The number of Chinese visitors to this country is growing fast but the Japanese have not yet conceded the top place in last year’s statistics, recording 3,023,000 compared to 1,875,000 Chinese, according to the Korea Tourism Organization.
The Japanese calendar has a concentration of red letter days in May and the Chinese workers traditionally take many days off in this month, starting from May Day. The number of tourists from these two neighbors has already swollen in the streets of Myeong-dong and Gangnam in Seoul and the resort island of Jeju. They should be offered enjoyable experiences at good value for money to ensure sustained growth of the industry here.
Extra efforts are needed to provide satisfaction both in what they see and what they do here. If Korea has relatively few famous natural sights and historical sites compared to the two neighboring countries, it can make up for that with other attractions ― a vibrant yet safe society, abundant merchandise of high quality and good prices, unique food culture and convenient urban amenities.
So, when tourist complain of overpricing at bars and poor service at restaurants, incommunicable taxi drivers, soliciting into lewd entertainment in back alleys and long waiting time at immigration counters at Jeju International Airport, this country is losing a golden opportunity. While government authorities and the business sector have separate responsibilities, they should also closely cooperate with each other to improve things.
We can point out only a few imminent tasks. It is mostly up to the creative and innovative ideas of businesspeople and officials. First, restaurants, while also offering authentic indigenous food, should develop dishes that satisfy foreign palates. Tourism authorities can help individual restaurants by preparing standard translations of the full variety of Korean dishes into English, Japanese and Chinese languages with details about the ingredients.
In the area of language, there is much room for improvement with regard to signs and introductions at tourist sites. The Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Sports and the KTO are advised to operate teams of multilingual experts, who will make rounds of these places to find and correct typographical, grammatical and factual errors.
Education programs for local tour guides are necessary to ensure delivery of accurate information especially at historical sites. Publishing of regularly updated tourist maps with kind addenda on all kinds of amenities is also the responsibility of tourism authorities with their extensive administrative capabilities. The KTO has done a lot of work on its Website in Korean and 12 foreign languages to meet all conceivable needs of foreign tourists but there still are areas that should be supplemented.
In the food section, for example, the “visitkorea.or.kr” site introduces kimchi, bibimbap, bulgogi and a dozen other representative Korean dishes. But it would be better if it showed that there are at least a score of varieties of kimchi alone and that Koreans eat beef and pork in many different ways of grilling other than the marinated bulgogi style. Tourists in general are as interested in contemporary Korean culture and lifestyle as traditional ones.
On the official level, careful study needs to be made as to whether more casinos should be opened at Songdo in the Incheon Free Economic Zone on a proposal to make it a second Macau. Simply, there are too many things to do to enter the new age of tourism growth in this region foreseeing some 100 million Chinese travelling abroad each year.