It is not hard to understand why tourist arrivals in South Korea decreased to 1,233,640 in March from 1,252,080 in February of 2017. The downturn reflects a low-key marketing campaign – NOT the destination!
Korea tourism offices from the UK to the USA are geared to providing brochures and maps… but little else. Interested in people, recommendations for hotels, off-beat attractions, restaurants, shopping, museums and art galleries and public transportation information? Check the website! Personal attention to individual queries take a very low priority on the public relations agenda.
Fortunately, as a journalist I was not deterred from “discovering” the Features, Advantages and Benefits (FABs) of tourism opportunities in Korea – and was richly rewarded with a travel experience that I can share with other global wanders and encourage everyone to explore this very special part of the planet.
Top Ten FABs
Seoul, Korea’s capital has everything a major cosmopolitan city should have:
1. Excellent public transportation (subways and busses): convenient, inexpensive, frequent, fast
2. With more than 20 million inhabitants, it is a giant internet hotspot that offers inexpensive wireless internet connections throughout the city
3. Clean public spaces. Maintenance employees and transit drivers wear white gloves as they clean the subways and drive their busses
4. Delicious and inexpensive cuisine available from family – run restaurants: Select from photos. Many accept credit cards
5. Interesting and unique historical/cultural centers – from palaces to art museums
6. Numerous shopping opportunities from $ scarfs and flip-flops to $$$$$$ designer frocks
7. Terrific city for walking, window shopping and people-watching
8. Wonderfully creative and innovative artists, sculptors and clothing designers
9. Kind, warm-hearted, generous people
10. Modern hotels to fit every budget
There are over 348 hotels in Seoul (2016) and range from modest to over-the-top luxury. Select accommodations based on your budget and hotel location (each part of the city offers unique and memorable experiences).
Suggested properties include:
1. Lotte Hotel Seoul – (a member of WorldHotels with 1120 rooms). Located in downtown Seoul, the area (Myeongdong) is considered to be the most prosperous and geographically important location in the city. Moments from Lotte Department Store and Duty Free Shopping, this hotel offers elegance in a traditional environment with a modern spin.
This classy hotel focuses on high-end features and combines excellent service with contemporary design. In addition to an executive floor that offers an extensive array of American and Asian breakfast treats plus an open bar and hors d’ouevers through cocktail hour, there is a ladies floor (the first in Korea) and a large gym, spa and swimming pool.
The enormous impressive lobby provides guests with efficient check-in and concierge services, as well as a variety of retail and drinking/dining options.
The Hotel Museum is located on the first floor and reviews the heritage of the Bando Hotel, the first commercial property in Korea. The Museum reviews the history, development, culture and vision of the Korean hotel and tourism industry. The brand name “Lotte” is derived from Charlotte, the heroine of Goethe’s “The Sorrow of Young Werther.”
The mission of this leading Korean hotel group is to fill the world with love, liberty and life, offering guests a “more abundant life and a beautiful future.”
Conveniently located near the Euljiro 1 Ga subway and bus lines the Lotte makes a perfect perch for discovering Seoul.
2. Aloft Myeongdong by Starwood
A very new and attractive hotel in Myeongdong (Jung District) recently opened with 223 guest rooms. The Aloft occupies a convenient location near 4 subway stations and bus stops. Owned by Sing Chang, it opened in early 2017 and offers buffet breakfast with Asian and international dining options, a colorful and popular bar and gym. The property is within walking distance of scores of restaurants, retail and duty-free shopping, as well as the Myeondong Cathedral and Bank of Korea Museum.
A short walk to the Namdaemun Market from day time through night time, visitors search for bargains in food, cosmetics, ginseng, clothes and assorted knick-knacks. Located near the Great South Gate (the main southern gate to the old city), it is the oldest and largest market in Korea. The Shinsegae and Lotte duty free shops are located within walking distance.
3. Aloft Seoul Gangnam by Starwood
This property features 188 rooms and suites and is located in a commercial section of Seoul. A short walk from the riverfront, it is close to the Cheongdam Subway (Line 7) and a few steps to the airport bus.
Opened in 2014, the hotel is a comfortable selection for business and leisure visitors to Seoul. Each room has a wall-mounted flat screen TV, desk and mini-fridge. Nook is the on-site restaurant that offers buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner and there is a 24-hour take-away f/b space, bar and fitness area. Small group meeting space is also available.
Located on Yeongdong-daero, Aloft is 11 km from Seoul’s city center and close to the COEX Convention and Exhibition Center, retail and dining opportunities, plus venues for special events and nightlife.
Gangnam is noted for posh nightclubs with multi-level dance floors and excellent sound systems. Considered the “Beverly Hills” of Seoul – visitors will note high-end fashion statements and obvious wealth from celebrities and successful executives who frequent the clubs.
• Heads – Up for Aloft Hotels
The brand is not familiar to taxi drivers and accurate location information does not appear on their GPS. It may be necessary for the taxi driver to call the hotel to receive location details. It is fruitless to try and convince taxi drivers that the dark alley or parking lot they have reached is not your destination.
4. Holiday Inn Express Euljiro
Located in Jung-gu (Central District), Seoul, this 3.5 star 224 room hotel is conveniently located in an area with an enormous selection for delicious mom/pop restaurants at incredibly modest prices (think under $10 per person) and appealing local beer ($3).
Room rates include complimentary buffet breakfast, Wi-Fi and parking as well as a fitness center. The neighborhood businesses focus on plumbing supplies and if you are in the market for tubs, bathroom sinks, and faucets – you will be captivated by the wide array of products that spill from the storefronts onto the street curbs. The area is also the headquarters for major banking, insurance and investment organizations, plus electronic giants, and airline offices.
Nearby attractions include palaces and temples as well as the Dongdaemum Market and the National Museum of Korea. Convenient location for subway stops and busses.
5. Novotel Hotels and Resorts, Gangnam
This property is part of the Accor Asia Pacific organization. Opened in September 1993 by Korea’s Ambassador Hotels Group, the property offers 332 rooms, a coffee shop, lobby lounge, Japanese and Korean restaurants, an entertainment bar, buffet, deli, seminar, conference and banquet rooms. Guests have access to a health club and swimming pool, golf range, sauna, aerobic room and jogging track.
Located near COEX Trade and Exhibition Center and Gyeongbu Highway, it offers transportation to/from Incheon International Airport.
Of special interest is the personalized food/beverage service for guests and groups.
6. Grand Ambassador Seoul Associated with Pullman
This hotel is associated with Pullman and is centrally located with easy access to major shopping, entertainment and business zones. With 413 rooms, guests are offered free Wi-Fi, 6 restaurants, 23 meeting and conference rooms, a fitness center with a swimming pool and a spa.
The Ocelas Spa offers a wide array of services that run from acupressure and modeling masks with caviar to Swedish massage. Special treatments include facials with hot/cold stones and anti-aging face care with organic cosmetics.
Hotel Inventory and Tourism
Between 2012 and 2016, the number of accommodations for tourists in Seoul expanded 72.7 percent. Over that same period, the number of tourists visiting Korea only increased by 54.7 percent, according to the Ministry of Sports and Culture. The increase in Seoul is even smaller, at 47.5 percent.
The oversupply is an outcome of a special legislative act of July 2012 that loosened regulations on new hotel construction. At the time, tourism was increasing but there was a deficit number of rooms to accommodate visitors. The act lifted many restrictions on hotel construction, doubling the floor-to-area ratio and allowing hotels to be built without parking spaces.
The industry overbuilt and in the past five years more than 40 new hotels have opened in the quarter square mile neighborhood of Myeongdon, an important tourist destination in central Seoul. Rooms are vacant, revenue is falling and hotel operators are responding by lowering prices. Even in the Gangnam District, another popular tourism center in southern Seoul, approximately 20-30 percent of rooms are left empty.
As Korean hotel owners struggle to fill rooms, Chinese tourists traveling in large groups have difficulty in finding accommodations. According to the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, Chinese tourists look for rooms from $60-$70 per night. However, of the 187 new hotels built after regulations were loosened in 2012, 47 were either five-star or higher and typically charge in excess of $100 per night. Cheaper hotels have been built, but they have not been able to meet the demands of the Chinese tourist. A market report on the lodging industry found that, based on Seoul’s performance in 2016, there were 4,142 fewer rooms in the mid-to-high price range hotels and 5,261 mid-to-low price range hotels when compared to demand.
Korea. Must Visit
The answer to the riddle is not complex – either build hotels that will appeal to the Chinese visitor and other budget-minded travelers, or increase marketing in the USA and Europe, encouraging travelers to put Korea on their “must visit list.”
To miss the interesting culture, customs, and cuisine of Korea – is a very big mistake.
© Dr. Elinor Garely. This copyright article, including photos, may not be reproduced without written permission from the author.