17 February 2019
Pop stars such as Psy and a host of popular TV dramas have contributed to growing interest in Korean culture in many parts of the world. Photo: Bloomberg
Pop stars such as Psy and a host of popular TV dramas have contributed to growing interest in Korean culture in many parts of the world. Photo: Bloomberg

Turning soft power into hard cash

South Korea has been gaining more “soft power” in recent years, thanks to the popularity of K-pop and Korean television drama series in several overseas markets. The cultural influence has led to growing interest in all things Korean — from food to fashion and heritage. 

Now, the Korean government is trying to monetize that interest by luring more tourists into the country, hoping that the visitors will have a manifold beneficial impact on the nation’s economy.

As part of the efforts, the government has begun to refund the 10 percent hotel tax to visitors. The incentive began on April 1 and will remain in place until end-March 2015.

This refund is applicable to international visitors who stay more than two nights but fewer than 30 in certified hotels. Eligible recipients must present a detailed “Hotel Stay Confirmation Form” in order to get the reimbursement at the tax refund counter at the airport. As of now, 64 hotels in Seoul, Busan and Gyeonggi-do — all popular tourist spots – have joined the program.  

The policy is welcome news for travelers from the region, including Hong Kong residents who make up a significant chunk of the tourist traffic to South Korea.

In the first four months this year, more than 160,000 Hong Kong people visited South Korea, a jump of more than 40 percent compared to the same period in 2013. In the month of April, more than 44,000 Hongkongers are said to have traveled to South Korea to enjoy things such as the Jinhae cherry blossom festival and to visit the locations featured in some drama series.

Observers say Seoul’s hotel tax refund policy was, to a large degree, indeed aimed at drawing in more visitors from the Greater China region, where the Korean culture is spreading and outpacing the Japanese culture which had earlier been the trendsetter for more than a decade.

In fact, as Sino-Japanese relations have worsened since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took over the reins in Tokyo in 2012, many Chinese tourists have begun to prefer to visit South Korea rather than Japan. A sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea has led to Beijing and Tokyo locking horns, affecting travel flows between the two nations.

The tensions between China and Japan, and the growing popularity of South Korea drama series among Chinese people, have already benefited the South Korea tourism industry.

South Korea government figures showed that inbound tourists from China jumped 53.3 percent in March to 423,768, accounting for 37 percent of the total inbound tourists. Japan, meanwhile, had only 184,200 Chinese visiting the country in March.

Euromonitor has said South Korea could see a significant spurt in inbound tourism in the next couple of years. South Korean pop music has created a new ‘Korean Wave’ around the world and boosted the appeal of the nation for outsiders. The global sensation created by pop star Psy with his “Gangnam Style” viral video two years ago was a reflection of this trend.

To cash in on this interest in Korean culture, authorities are engaging in massive marketing activities abroad and promoting the nation through various online channels and social media. Low-cost airlines, with their expanded services, are also helping bring in more people.

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EJ Insight writer

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