Korea has an amazing amount of treasures that can interest and entertain international tourists, but they are still far too little-known around the world. Korea’s tourism brand-image suffers from a very low profile, and we attract far fewer visitors every year than our potential should warrant.
I am myself still fascinated with traveling around this nation after two-and-a-half decades of doing so, marveling at the sheer beauty and fascination of so many sites; an experience shared by many of my friends and guests.
And yet Korea’s attractions are still virtually unrecognized in the global tourism market compared with equivalent or inferior offerings in other parts of Asia.
It used to seem kind of a positive point that we were one of the last “undiscovered” destinations, a mysterious country that delighted the intrepid explorers who made the effort. But that time has passed.
It is now widely recognized that Korean tourism needs some serious upgrading and a thorough re-branding in order to contribute to the national reputation and economy on the scale that it could and should.
Several books could be written on the problems and possible solutions, but in this short essay I would like to focus on Korea’s rich but unrealized potential to attract religious, spiritual and pilgrimage tourism.
This is currently one of the strongest-growing sectors of the international tourism industry, and of sharply-increasing interest to tour operators, governments, and travelers themselves. Newsweek International’s regular Spring cover-issue on global tourism for 2007 focused on this phenomenon, and the United Nations World Tourism Organization held its first conference on it six months later.
South Korea enjoys a vivid variety of “living” religious and spiritual-development traditions, and their associated pilgrimage opportunities. There are quite a few contemporary religious and spiritual tourism activities now available here, at least partially accessible to visitors, although they are yet little-known to the global market.
Korea has the potential to be a major destination for religious-pilgrimage tourism which is now only dimly realized. However, a good beginning has been made towards dealing with sustainability issues that the recent decades of strong growth have brought.
Several thousand sites of spiritual significance to more than a dozen religious traditions can readily be found within this relatively small nation. They range in size and significance from grand ancient monasteries containing profound artistic treasures to small personal-sized primitive stone shrines in remote areas.
Around 100 or so of them could be said to be quite heavily-visited by both domestic and foreign tourists, while thousands are rarely visited by anyone but the most adventurously devout.
Most of these sites are held sacred by the great world religions such as Mahayana Buddhism, Northeast-Asian Shamanism, including ancient Korea spiritual-nationalism, Christianity in both its Catholic and Protestant forms, and Neo-Confucianism.
A lesser number are held sacred by smaller religious and spiritual traditions such as Daoism, and indigenous sects such as Cheondo-gyo, Jeungsan-do, the Unification Church and so on. Korea offers more religious sites and activities per-square-kilometer than almost anywhere else.
The market for domestic religious tourism is very strong and still rapidly growing, comprised of the journeys of believers to sacred sites of their own faith both near and far, often regularly arranged by both religious organizations themselves and independent commercial tourism companies. A noticeably increasing phenomenon is the journeys of members of other religions or those without membership in any religion to these pilgrimage sites, motivated by the prospect of personal spiritual growth, curiosity about other religious faiths, desire to experience historic religious sites, or a mere interest in national history.
This has been accompanied within the past decade or two by increasing international interest in Korea’s strong religious and spiritual traditions, most notably its unique national form of Buddhism.
Every year we see small but growing numbers of foreign visitors interested in visiting Korea’s religious sites, with deeper motivation than the ordinary sightseer.
Many visitors to South Korea, including the children of emigrants from Korea wishing to experience their ancestors native culture, are now including in their tourist experiences one or more pilgrimage-style visits to sacred sites, in search of both knowledge of Korea’s religious tradition and potential personal encounters with religious personages and/or spiritual energies that might further their own development.
The destination sites are sprinkled throughout the nation, with no particularly intensive concentration. They are found on islands and coastlines, in remote high mountains and dense urban areas.
These spiritual-pilgrimage visits are almost never conducted by long stretches of walking or horse-power as they were in pre-industrial times, however.
This is largely due to South Korea’s high level of transportation infrastructure combined with the intense ‘busyness’ of modern life for most people.
Another strong factor in this is the lack of pleasant and convenient pilgrimage trails, whether restored ancient ones or freshly developed ones.
This is a matter that the South Korean government should consider when making future national construction and development plans; restoration or new construction of such routes could greatly spur the growth of religious pilgrimage tourism.Instead of traditional walking, most of spiritual-pilgrimage visits are conducted using public trains, public or rented buses and private automobiles, making efficient use of Korea’s currently extensive and excellent network of highways, national expressways and local roads.
One problem with developing, organizing and promoting this type of tourism in this country has been the lack of designation and public listing of the most important and/or popular sites.
It is difficult to distinguish the religious-pilgrimage aspect of the popularity of many of Korea’s best tourism sites from the other aspects that attract travelers to them (natural beauty, clean air and water, general recreation, hiking and other sports, good food and drink) due to the location of most of them within otherwise excellent attractions such as national and provincial parks.
However, for the purposes of researching and then promoting this type of tourism in Korea, it seems necessary for those concerned to begin creating such lists and designations, on clear and valid criteria, so that those efforts may move forward in a fashion that is applicable for academic research, governmental and international tourism boosting agencies, and the private businesses engaging in this sort of tourism.
I have already created and posted one such list, on the world’s most popular website about these matters, maintained by Mr. Martin Gray at http://www.sacredsites.com with the title “Sacred Sites of the World, Places of Peace and Power”.
It has a separate page for each nation, with a map, listing its most important sites of religious worship and pilgrimage that can be considered “traditional” (pre-20th-Century), often with descriptions and photographs available. You can see my choices for the top 40 sites on the Korean Peninsula by clicking “Korea” on that sites “World Atlas” section. I put their names in the government-standard Romanization system (now universal on maps, websites and signs), provided a translation into English for each name to increase its interest, and wrote a very brief but comprehensive description of why that place is important in the context of Korea’s religious culture.
The intention of this project was to improve Korea’s international tourism reputation, by providing all-too-rare accurate and detailed information on important aspects of Korea’s cultural tourism geography to replace the incomplete and mistaken data that is still unfortunately so common in many media around the world.
The very best example of successful development of this type of tourism in Korea has been the increasingly-popular Temple-Stay program. This was started in Spring 2002, as a “Visit Korea Year” project in advance of the 2002 FIFA World Cup Finals.
It was first proposed and structured as alternative accommodations and sightseeing for the more spiritually minded international visitors to Korea during that great sports event, to last for only three months. The first “sample” Temple-Stay Event was held in April 2002 at the ancient, large and venerable Jikji-sa (Finger-Pointing Monastery), with 25 foreign ambassadors to Korea as guests and myself as the tour-guide.
Fortunately, tourism authorities and the leadership of the dominant Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism quickly realized that it represented an excellent opportunity as a new kind of religious-pilgrimage tourism in Korea.
The Jogye Order was also led to recognize its great potential for missionary and proselytizing efforts, to increase international knowledge of its faith and practices, and to boost its global reputation as a vital form of Buddhism. Plans were drawn up and implemented to extend the Temple-Stay program for the rest of 2002, and then to make it a permanent feature of Korean religious tourism even beyond that year. The number of participating monasteries quickly rose from the initial seven to more than thirty, including many of Korea’s most historic and important ones.
It began fully functioning nationwide in 2004, and with the publicity generated by domestic and foreign interest together with some Internet-based advertising, the number of participants in it grew very quickly.
The program adopted the slogan “Changing the way you see yourself, and the world”, and set up its own extensive Web site which permits online reservations. This program is now fully and independently operated by the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism.
Around 50 great temples around the nation are involved in it at least some of the time, and most have developed their own individualized characteristic programs (based on the temples history, location, masters in residence, etc). Participation by international residents and tourists has been strongly growing every year.
I believe that this successful model can be suspended and replicated with very good results to be expected. Korea has fantastic potential to become one of the world’s great religious, spiritual, pilgrimage tourism destinations, and I recommend the concerned authorities in governmental and private sectors to pay more attention to realizing the fruits of it. This is one direction in which Korea can utilize the deep resources it already possesses in abundance to expand its tourism industry, while at the same time improve its national brand-image.