Foreign travelers boost local retail, hotel industry around shopping district
On a bustling street in Myeong-dong, 21-year-old Japanese college student Yuki Kinoshita was looking for a “gomtang” place to try out the milky-white Korean beef broth.
“My map says it is here. But it’s gone,” Kinoshita told The Korea Herald showing her map, written in Japanese. The place she was looking for, with her girlfriend, had been replaced by another restaurant.
It was her second time in Korea. Her interest in the country grew while she was listening to K-pop in Japan. She planned to spend about 100,000 yen ($1,300) for an eight-day stay around Myeong-dong for shopping and “hanging around,” excluding flight tickets.
“It is fun walking around here. I think Myeong-dong deserves to be a major district of Seoul because so many people visit here.”
Giving up on gomtang, Kinoshita took off for shopping and disappeared into a multi-national crowd that included Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian and some Western tourists.
Myeong-dong, once practically deserted in the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, has made a comeback as a major district with a young, international vibe.
Back in the 1970s, Myeong-dong was the mecca for young and trendy people as the area filled with high-rise financial buildings, shopping centers and boutiques.
Its business heydays did not last very long, after it became a major site for political demonstrations and protests in the 1980s and 1990s. Myeong-dong Cathedral has been frequently used as a place for protests.
In recent years, international travelers’ growing interest in K-pop and hallyu stars sparked tourism in the area.
According to a survey by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute in 2010, Myeong-dong topped the list of major tourist spots in Korea with 54 percent of the 12,000 foreign travelers visiting the district, followed by Dongdaemun Market with 45 percent, Namdaemun Market with 37 percent and palaces with 35 percent.
A street in Myeong-dong is filled with shoppers. (Kim Myung-sub/The Korea Herald)
The most impressive site during their stay in Korea was also Myeong-dong, with 29 percent of the respondents picking the district, while 19 percent said palaces were the most impressive.
Myeong-dong has been the No.1 destination for international travelers since 2007, according to the institute.
Myeong-dong also topped the list of shopping places in Korea with 35 percent of tourists picking it, followed by airport duty free shops with 31 percent, department stores with 29 percent and Dongdaemun Market with 27 percent.
Amore Pacific, which operates four chain stores of skincare brand Aritaum in Myeong-dong, said sales of the four stores were hitting 40 percent monthly growth on average this year.
“Among the total sales, 80 percent comes from sales to foreign visitors. Out of them, 70 percent is Chinese, followed by Japan, Malaysia and other parts of Asia,” an Amore Pacific spokesperson said.
Most of the cosmetics shops are clustered on one street in Myeong-dong. Sales staffs, all speaking in Japanese or Chinese to anyone who looks Asian, were busy trying to drag tourists inside their shops. They were from Etude House, Holika Holika, the Face Shop and Tony Moly ― decorated with advertisement photos of Korean actors and K-pop singers.
“Try these. Service, service,” a staff shouted to a group of Southeast Asian tourists, whose hands were already full with shopping bags.
Lotte Department Store and Shinsegae Department Store near Myeong-dong saw their sales double or even triple during the Oct. 1-7 Chinese national holiday period, from a year earlier, according to news reports.
The boom in the number of foreign visitors has pushed the local hotel industry to expand as well.
Park Jong-deok, president of Skyad, the operator of Hotel Sky Park in Myeong-dong, said he was considering opening a fourth Sky Park in the area, after opening three Sky Park hotels in the last two years.
“It all started in 2005 when I was managing a theater-equipped building in Myeong-dong. With multiplexes mushrooming, I was looking for something that could benefit from the increasing number of foreign visitors,” Park said.
After thorough market research, he opened the first hotel in August last year in front of Savoy Hotel. It had 72 rooms, offering 30,000 won to 150,000 won per night, mainly targeting Japanese tourists.
Soon, supply could not meet demand and he opened two more hotels with a total 258 rooms in the area.
Park expected the competition to heat up among mid- or low-priced business hotels such as Hotel Sky Park and Toyoko Inn chains in Myeong-dong.
“The business prospects for Myeong-dong are very bright because it is located in the center of the city, very close to subway lines No.2 and No. 4. It is easy to shop. Most of all, it is the No.1 destination for foreign tourists,” Park said.
By Kim Yoon-mi (firstname.lastname@example.org