From K-dramas and K-pop to the Korean skincare products and instant noodles on supermarket shelves, the Hallyu wave or K-culture wave has swept the world.
So, it wasn't a surprise when thousands of Dubai residents reached Dubai Festival City Mall on May 5 and 6 for a Korean tourism roadshow. While some had heard the news on K-pop fans’ Whatsapp groups, others had seen the announcement on social media.
Across the mall, K-culture fans dotted the stalls, some trying on hanboks and traditional South Korean costumes, and others at the calligraphy stall, getting their names signed on hand fans in the Hangeul script.
The excitement was palpable among fans who wanted to experience even the smallest thing from South Korea.
This love for South Korea is global, and perhaps what led to country’s tourism effort for 2023-2024, called the Visit Korea Year. The initiative aims to encourage as many as 30 million overseas tourists to travel to the capital this year.
It was also part of this initiative when Seoul’s Jamsugyo Bridge across the Han River transformed into a high fashion runway for Louis Vuitton’s pre-fall womenswear show last month. Similarly, on May 15, luxury fashion house Gucci's Cruise 2024 collection will be staged at Seoul’s Gyeongbokgung Palace.
In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, Kim Sang Ug, Director General of the Tourism Industry Policy Bureau - Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, of the Republic of Korea, explained how the Korean culture wave has helped tourism in South Korea.
Does Korea plan to introduce new visa options or processes directed at UAE tourists? For example the new E-visa from Japan? How does the country hope to simplify the visa process to promote tourism from the UAE?
We have temporarily removed visas for nationals of select countries – UAE is a brother country, and we have very friendly relations with the country. Even though the removal of visas is temporary as of now, the UAE is one of the beneficiaries.
UAE is listed under the category ‘Visa not required (K-ETA) - 90 days’, which means that UAE nationals traveling to South Korea for 90 days are exempt from applying for the K-ETA.
How has Korean tourism picked up post-COVID-19?
Korea experienced great difficulty in the tourism sector during COVID-19. It became a big question for the Korean government, as to how to promote tourism in the country. I had many meetings with private tour operators in our country to find solutions. One such solution was that we focused on digitalising the MICE industry (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions industry, which can also be referred to as business tourism).
During the pandemic, travelling outside of the country was impossible. So, we focused on tourism within Korea.
Even though we were in constant communication with private companies dealing in tourism, there were still many challenges.
Many people in such companies started losing their job. So, the Korean government stepped up and tried to sponsor tourism-related industries affected by COVID-19.
The Korean government started lending money to businesses in the tourism industry affected during the period. The date to repay the loan was extended. We are still in the recovery stage.
While the exact figures aren’t currently available, we have definitely seen a surge in the number of visitors to Korea.
How have soft powers like K-pop and K-drama helped Korean tourism?
Both K-pop and K-drama have gained huge popularity abroad and with people outside the country.
People who get to know about K-culture seem very interested to see Korea. We believe the impact of both is huge on Korean tourism.
I am proud to say I served in the department which deals in entertainment content such as movies, games, animation, and cartoons to promote South Korea.
What are the steps Korea is taking to promote tourism?
We are trying to promote Korean tourism at a government level. This event (the Korea Tourism roadshow at Dubai Festival City Mall) is an example. We have similar events lined up in Japan, the US, and other countries.
The years 2023 and 2024 have been declared as the years of Visit Korea.
Small companies in the tourism sector are being promoted to expand abroad. All these efforts to promote Korea will only be fruitful if travelers see the right things they expect to see when they come to the country. For this, we have shortlisted 100 places to visit in South Korea.
For example, we invite visitors to see the Blue House (Cheong Wa Dae in Hangeul) in Korea. Similar to the White House in the US, it formerly served as the executive office and official residence of the South Korean president. All former presidents have stayed there. However, when the new president Yoon Suk Yeol moved to the new presidential offices, in Seoul’s Yongsan District, the palace was opened up to the public.
The Blue House is located in Jongno-gu district, somewhat at the center of Seoul. It has many historical sites around it, which we are promoting too. There are at least 10 things tourists can enjoy around the Blue House.
For example, a mountain behind it has been dubbed the K-mountain, and we have introduced a tourist program called K-climbing.
How important is UAE to Korean tourism?
Very important. Our President was on a state visit to the UAE last year. During the visit, many business MOUs (memorandum of understanding) were signed.
Upon his return, we heard so many good things about the UAE and its people. So, we looked forward to visiting the country, as well as welcoming tourists from the UAE.
Which are the places in Korea with the maximum tourism from the UAE? Are there different kinds of tourism from the UAE to Korea?
Tourists from the UAE mostly visit places such as Seoul, Busan, and Jeju islands for ecotourism, cultural, and culinary tourism.
However, we have noticed that UAE tourists are very interested in South Korea’s medical tourism, too – so we are trying to bring together Western medicine and technology along with Korean traditional medicine.
Tourists from the UAE are also interested in wellness tourism, such as meditation and self-healing. These concepts have been a part of the Korean tradition for centuries.
What steps is the Korean tourism board taking to promote these sectors?
Our department is in charge of the local development of individual cities. So we individually identify the characteristics of each city and develop them for our visitors.
For medical tourism, we are trying to promote places like Daegu and Jeollanam-do, known for Korean traditional medication.
The two cities are being promoted as healthcare and wellness centers.
For health tourism, we have also collaborated with the South Korean Ministry of Health.
We also see that tourists from the UAE are interested in the four distinct seasons of Korea – winter, spring, summer, and autumn.
For this, we are working with Korean companies specialised in UAE tourism. We try guiding visitors from UAE to places they might be interested in seeing, such as places with snow or other nature-related destinations.
Our department is trying to make privatised and personalised tourism experiences for people from the UAE.
How does this tie in with the Korean Expo2030 bid?
Of course, as Korean tourism picks up, we are also expecting and hoping for Korea’s chance to host Expo2030.
- Translation provided by E-Wha Kim, manager of PR and Media at Korean Cultural Center, Abu Dhabi, UAE