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
“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
“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
“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
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
“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,
His advice to Israel: “Just emphasize the attractions, and
remind people of the tremendous assets that you have.”
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
Should it expand more routes eastward, Tel Aviv could become a
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.