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Korea welcomes ten millionth visitor

This year saw landmark accomplishments for Korea in the sectors of global finance and international diplomacy as well as the domestic and overseas entertainment industries. Last week, with a little over a month left before the year’s end, a new cause for celebration landed on the country’s shores.

The ten millionth foreign visitor to Korea this year arrived at Incheon International Airport on November 21, marking a record annual high for Korea’s burgeoning tourism industry. Twenty-eight-year-old Li Tingting of China was greeted upon entry by a welcoming committee that included Culture Minister Choe Kwang-sik and Korea Tourism Organization President Charm Lee.

Li Tingting (fourth from left) became the ten millionth foreign visitor to Korea this year on November 21. Li takes a commemorative photo with Culture Minister Choe Kwang-sik (third from left) and Korea Tourism Organization President Charm Lee (fourth from right) at Incheon International Airport (photo: Yonhap News).

“From the standpoint of tourism, our country is really no different from an island,“ said Minister Choe during his congratulatory remarks, highlighting the potentially problematic aspects of being a water-locked peninsula connected to the larger Asian landmass only by North Korea.

Indeed, Korea’s path to ten million is far from a narrative of overnight success. Kim Seong-jin, head of the Tourism Industry Division at the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, identified four distinct peaks in the development of Korea’s tourism industry.

The first period of growth came during the late 1960s to the early 1970s, said Kim, after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan in 1965. A steady stream of tourists from Japan helped give Korea’s tourism industry its first push.

Visitors enter Korea after passing through customs at Incheon International Airport (photo: Yonhap News).

Over a decade later, with the success of the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, Korea received increased international exposure, and during this second peak year, the number of foreign tourists surpassed two million. It took less than three years for the number to reach three million in 1991. A third peak came at the end of the 90s as the depreciation of the Korean won following the 1997 Asian financial crisis increased Korea’s price competitiveness.

The last, and currently most crucial, period of growth for Korean tourism has been the five years since 2008, according to Kim. Key factors at play included reforms to the visa system as well as favorable currency exchange rates and the rapid spread of Hallyu since its rise in the early 2000s.

Today, Korea attracts not only Hallyu fans but also travelers interested in Korea’s shopping trends, quality medical services, or its various MICE (Meeting, Incentives, Convention, Exhibition) offerings. From 2009 to 2011, the profits from medical tourism rose threefold from approximately KRW 55 billion to KRW 180 billion, while the number of international events and conventions held in the country went up by over 70 percent in the four years from 2007 (268 events) to 2011 (469 events).

Tourists browse the offerings at a duty free store in Seoul on October 2 during a special holiday sale. With visitors from China making up a large part of the customers, specially prepared Chinese signs have been hung in the store (photo: Yonhap News).

According to statistics from the United Nations World Trade Organization (UNWTO), the 12.5 percent yearly growth rate in annual tourism to Korea from 2009 to 2011 was also the highest among OECD nations.

With last week’s record of ten million inbound foreign tourists within one year, Korea now ranks among the top 17 international tourist destinations.

As for future goals, Shim Weon-seop of the Tourism Policy Division of the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute said that “for continued growth of our tourism industry, it is important to devote our energies now to policies focusing on quality and not quantity. Especially with the recent exponential growth in tourists from China, it is important to carry out thorough preparations.”

Indeed, Chinese tourists, together with Japanese tourists, make up roughly 58% of all tourists to Korea. Also, Chinese tourists in particular have contributed significantly to the growth of tourism in one major location well-loved by foreign visitors and locals alike -- Jeju Island.

Jeju Island (pictured) is one of Korea's most popular tourist destinations and well-loved by foreign visitors and locals alike. The Jeju Olle Trails give visitors the opportunity to explore the island's natural treasures on foot (photo: Yonhap News).

Of the over one and a half million foreign visitors to Jeju Island this year (as of November 12), approximately one million came from China. The exact figure of 996,457 Chinese tourists recorded on November 12 was over double that recorded a year earlier at the same time of 498,139 people. The beautiful beaches and scenic coastal landscapes of Jeju Island, which see an average of 3,000 to 4,000 foreign visitors a day, have been described as especially appealing among visitors from inland China.

Statistics recording the trends in inbound foreign tourism to Korea date back to 1961, when the number of foreign visitors was first recorded at less than 10,000. The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism predicts that an estimated 11.3 million foreign tourists will visit Korea by the end of the year.

By Kwon Jungyun
Korea.net Staff Writer

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