Selling Korea to tourists with ‘Gangnam Style’

Israelis and Koreans share "brains and the readiness to work," says tourism official visiting Israel.

May 29, 2013 03:12
3 minute read.
President of Korea Tourism Organization, Charm Lee.

Charm Lee 370. (photo credit: Korea Tourism Organization)

Korean pop-rocker Psy scored an unexpected hit with his song Gangnam Style, whose tongue-in-cheek video shattered YouTube records and became the first video to break a billion views on the site. As an unintended consequence, the video has helped bring about a spike in interest in Korea as a tourist destination.

“They did a survey in New York on everyone who has watched the video on YouTube, and 90 percent said they were more curious about visiting Korea,” the president of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) Charm Lee told The Jerusalem Post during his visit to Israel this week.

To Charm – in Israel to speak at the Jerusalem Innovative Tourism Summit on the role of government in tourism – the Psy video is exactly the kind of tool that could help people think of Korea as a tourist destination. Though perhaps mockingly, the clip features high fashion and urban chic, not to mention an addictive electronic dance beat. For Lee, who has been primarily branding Korea as an “inspirational” destination full of spiritual, social and emotional energies, Psy’s viral video was a perfect draw.

“Psy is like a Korean shaman – his moves, the horse dance and his other dances, he’s basically like a shaman bringing down the spirits,” says Charm, who emigrated from Germany to Korea more than 30 years ago and changed his name upon receiving citizenship.

Though international music success helps people relate to Korea, he says, it also emphasizes the country’s unique culture.

“Being different is good in tourism. Korea never wants to be and couldn’t be a mass tourism country like Spain and Thailand, where people come and relax and let the sun shine on their belly.”

A relatively pricy niche destination, Korea instead allows its tourists to marvel at the modern metropolis of Seoul.

Many are surprised at the extent of the country’s futuristic technology, like hotel rooms with televisions that lower the volume automatically when guests pick up the phone.

Having focused most of its energies on developing its industries – Korea is home to global companies such as Samsung and Hyundai – the government only started pushing tourism in recent years. Over the past four years, says Lee, tourism grew by 70 percent, from 6.8 million visitors in 2009 to 11.1 million in 2012.

And different though they seem, Israel and Korea may have a lot to learn from each other.

Aside from Israel’s “chosen people” sharing a name with Korea’s last dynasty, the Choson dynasty, Charm says Israelis and Koreans share a similar sense of national pride.

Both countries’ greatest natural resources are “brains and the readiness to work,” he says. Both share a diversity of religions and cultures, and both are used to threats from their neighbors.

“In Israel it’s more real, because bombs and terrorist attacks [actually] happen,” Charm says. “With North Korea, it never happens,” with the exception of a few incidents, he says.

Because North Korea heavily relies on China and fears harming a Chinese tourist or causing ire with its only international backer, “they’re always restricted to a level where no retaliation will come in.”

That doesn’t mean tourism – especially organized group tourism – isn’t affected by the security threat. Saber rattling robbed the country of some 20% in expected tourist growth in the first months of this year, Charm says.

His advice to Israel: “Just emphasize the attractions, and remind people of the tremendous assets that you have.”

Korea, Charm notes, has even managed to find an odd upside in its nasty neighbor to the north, in what Charm calls “Black Tourism.” Some tourists take trips to the North Korean border to peer over “the last iron curtain in the world” and spy on the guards of the nuclear-armed dictatorship.

One promising development that Charm says will help boost tourism between Israel and Korea is the recent approval of the Open Skies Agreement, which may increase Ben-Gurion Airport’s use as both a destination and a hub. Just this week, Austrian Airlines announced that it will bid on a tender to increase the frequency of its flights, and EasyJet is expected to make an announcement in the coming days as well.

Should it expand more routes eastward, Tel Aviv could become a convenient stopover.

With only six flights a week from Tel Aviv to Korea – whose airport is itself a hub to the East – the agreement’s final passage could spell good news for Seoul as well.

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