Monday, September 6, 2010

Tourism to Power Korea’s Economy

Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) President and CEO Oh Jee-chul

By Oh Jee-chul
President and CEO 
of the Korea Tourism Organization 

The tourism industry has been a leading growth engine in this era of globalization, and is projected to account for 11 percent of the world's GDP by 2010. While Korea has entered into a period of stagnation akin to the global economy, the tourism industry will play a crucial role in revitalizing the national economy on account of its potential for job creation and promotion of the local economy.

The Korean government has recently made strong efforts to improve competitiveness in the nation's service sector via deregulation, innovation of systems and the creation of substantial policies. Similar efforts will continue this year.

Last year, the Korean tourism industry was successful despite the worldwide economic recession in exploiting the depreciated Korean won and hence drawing about 6.89 million tourists into Korea from around the world resulting in $9 billion in tourist receipts for the year, thereby turning a crisis into an opportunity

In 2009, the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) will concentrate its resources to significantly improve the nation's tourism infrastructure, including accommodation, food, transportation and tourist guide programs, so that both international and domestic travelers experience a more comfortable stay in Korea. The KTO will devote its best efforts to key projects such as marketing campaigns designed to highlight the benefits of traveling to Korea while the won is weak, medical tourism, the MICE industry and green tourism, with the ultimate goal of attracting 10 million visitors from across the world by 2012.

Favorable Exchange Rates

Today, tourist destinations and duty-free shops across Korea are relishing the boom with foreign travelers, with Japanese visitors accounting for the biggest group, naturally taking advantage of the lucrative depreciation of the Korean won against the Japanese yen. A dramatic fall of the exchange rate in the last quarter of 2008, for instance, increased the number of Japanese visitors to Korea by 20.3 percent over the same quarter the previous year.

The KTO has recently taken strategic measures to tackle today's economic downturn leading to a fallen exchange rate of the won versus the yen by employing ``exchange rate marketing,'' which aims to spotlight the economic benefits of visiting Korea. The organization has also launched a special marketing campaign headed by the sloga, ``Visit Korea Now ― Double Your Joy at Half the Cost,'' aggressively exploiting the inbound tourist markets in neighboring countries like China and Japan. The main strategy is to draw more foreign tourists to Korea by highlighting the benefits created by the low exchange rate of the Korean won against foreign currencies.

The recent drastic fall in the value of the Korean national currency has led to an abrupt decrease in demand for overseas travel among Koreans and an increased demand for domestic tourism. In an effort to capitalize the current trend to travel locally, the KTO plans to develop and promote high-class domestic tourist products, including golf tourism and school excursions, effectively meeting the demands of those who opt to explore domestic destinations in lieu of international ones.

Key Growth Engines

These days, many countries are interested in poising their respective tourism industries as an innovative leader of local and national economic development, and have focused their capability on the development of special tourist programs by way of combining traditional tourist products with other industries. Likewise, the KTO has undertaken plans to develop medical tourism as the next major growth engine. Figures show that the total revenue of the world's medical tourism industry in 2007 was $26.7 billion and the total number of medical tourists was about 26 million.

Figures also indicate that in 2007, about 2.9 million people across the world traveled to Asian countries to receive healthcare services, thereby spending about $3.4 billion, or 13 percent of the global medical tourism market. In countries such as Singapore and Thailand, medical tourism has long been promoted as a key strategic industry, which has resulted in remarkable success.

In contrast, Korea has made little progress in the medical tourism sector, largely in part due to the various restrictions imposed by healthcare laws and regulations as well as a lack of overseas advertising and awareness of the benefits of the emerging industry. Today, however, the Korean government clearly recognizes the industry's potential as a new growth engine where medical service is combined with tourism to create added value, and now offers generous programs and support to boost the industry.

With an aim to best utilize the government's contributions, the KTO has established a goal to attract 30,000 medical tourists this year and concentrate on achieving it with the development of competitive medical tourism products in partnership with a related overseas network and leading healthcare institutions in Korea.

The KTO's other concerns are to foster awareness of the value of healthcare tourism in addition to building a one-stop system designed to offer assistance to foreign travelers who visit Korea for medical care. The goal is to enable Korea to grow into a leading player in the world's medical tourism industry by attracting over 100,000 medical tourists by 2012.

MICE Industry

The Meeting, Incentive, Convention and Exhibition (MICE) industry, which is now regarded as a major new growth engine, was included as a value-added service industry by the Korean government, which designated 17 economic growth engines in three sectors at a joint meeting of the National Science and Technology Council and the Presidential Council for Future and Vision on Jan. 13. The MICE industry refers to a particular type of tourism in which large groups, usually planned well in advance, are brought together for some particular purpose. The MICE industry is regarded as creating particularly high value added with a strong influence on the national economy since MICE participants tend to spend up to twice as much as typical tourists.

Last December, the KTO reorganized its organizational structure to allow the Korean MICE industry to have more autonomy by specifically promoting the existing ``bureaus'' to ``headquarters'' and doubling the budget of the headquarters for 2009 over the previous year's budget.

Main MICE projects for 2009 are largely divided into three categories: the development of MICE infrastructure, marketing campaigns promoting Korea as a MICE host destination, and additional projects helping Korea attract more international MICE events. Some of the initiatives undertaken this year include a basic statistical survey to obtain comprehensive information about the breadth of the global MICE industry; the establishment of a five-year development plan; the training of the MICE experts and specialists; and the creation of an integrated information system designed to be a source of information and networking among related businesses.

The KTO is also engaged in various marketing activities, such as the promotion of the Korean MICE industry via advertisements, roadshows and conventions aimed to attract overseas medical tourists, the discovery of the top 100 MICE operators, the consolidation of the Korea MICE Specialist system and the support of large MICE-related events held in the region, including Herbal Life and Malaysia Elkensa.

Other large-scale international MICE events that the KTO currently has a hand in include the 2013 FDI World Dental Congress and the 2015 International Congress on Occupational Health. The KTO is confident that such events will greatly contribute to shaping Korea as Asia's leading player in the market by 2013 and one of the top 10 MICE players in the world.

Green Tourism

In the 21st century, environmental and social responsibility have become more prominent forces in day to day business, and Korea is undertaking specific measures in light of this paradigm shift. One of the pending issues affecting Korea today is the instigation of industrial reform with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas output and achieving a low carbon society. As a responsible member of the global community, Korea has been active in tackling its energy and environmental shortcomings under a program entitled ``Low-Carbon, Green Growth.'' The movement to reduce greenhouse gas and adopt environmentally friendly measures has been extended to the tourism industry as well. The introduction of green policy to the tourist industry has brought about green tourism in Korea, with a mission to oversee the development of tourism in such a way as to prevent the degradation of the nation's environmental resources through unsustainable tourism practices. In an initial effort, the KTO launched a Green Tourism Team last December with a mandate to oversee and enforce environmental protection and preservation and the promotion of green tourism in Korea.

Korea has numerous tourist destinations that are attractive to those who are interested in natural tourism activities. One of the most impressive regions will be the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ), the space used to demarcate the boundary between North and South Koreas since the Korean War, a forbidden strip of land untouched for the last 50 years and hence, an unintentional ecological reserve for wildlife and flora. Other attractions renowned for ecological soundness include Suncheon Bay, the Upo Marshlands and the tidelands of the West Sea. Asia's first international Slow Cities are also expected to be major green tourist attractions.

The Korean government is currently devoted to the funding of the construction of comprehensive leisure facilities connected with eco-tourism attractions along the four major rivers. In line with government policy, the KTO plans to avail much of its resources to the development of environmentally friendly tourist products by combining prime riverside space with natural, historical, or cultural projects. The organization is particularly interested in the construction of the Gyeongin Canal, a waterway designed to run from Incheon to Seoul, with the aim to turn Seoul into a prosperous port city by linking the Han River with the West Sea. The KTO has earmarked the project as one that can successfully be integrated with green tourism leisure activities, and plans to spearhead the development of environmentally safe tourism sites.

In addition to green tourist programs already underway, the KTO has in the works plans to design new historical walking courses in combination with the concept of ``storytelling.'' Examples of new routes under consideration include the 200-ri _ about 50 miles _ Riverside Tourist Routes along the Namhan River; Admiral Yi Sun-sin's Historical March during the Imjin War; the Ancient House Lanes of Jeju Island; Ven. Wonhyo's Pilgrimage Route; and other walking courses comparable to the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

Furthermore, the KTO will undertake an award program that recognizes tourism businesses that adopt green practices such as carbon labeling, a standards program that details the toll a tourism product takes on the environment, to better inform consumers and to act as a step toward accountability. Green villages will also be designated that offer visitors a rare opportunity to experience green tourism programs.

In 2009, the KTO will continue to work toward the goal of attracting 7.5 million visitors from around the world and earning at least $10 billion in tourism receipts through successful value-added medical tourism programs and MICE and environmentally-friendly tourism products.

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