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Opinion pieces on business & economic issues

KANG Shin-Kyum

Korea's Tourism: Badly in Need of Software

KANG Shin-Kyum

July 27, 2005

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Korea's home tourism market has gained momentum with the arrival of peak summer season. The market owes its vitality to active efforts by each provincial government to attract people with more leisure time under the new five-day work-week regime.

For all that, neither the industry's infrastructure in the southern region of the nation nor the quality of service offered appears sufficient enough to satisfy tourists.

Notwithstanding the arrival of highspeed railway (the so-called KTX) and vastly improved highway system that make travel easy across the country, foreign tourists seem still concentrated in Seoul, Gyeongju or Cheju Island. It has been constantly emphasized that tourism should be a new source for Korea's economic growth, but one must ask: why is the industry here so inadequate?

The reason isn't mystifying. Investment in tourism industry has focused mostly on hardware development such as building tour sites and tourism complexes, for the simple reason that they were so inadequate in the 1970's and 1980's. The government therefore had no alternative but to develop hardware first, leaving software for later development. As a result, Korea has a plenty of modern hotel accommodation but not much in sophisticated tourism services that other industrialized countries boast. In other words, Korea has splendid theaters and performance halls, but not enough super-class performers or directors capable of resonating with global audiences. In short, Korea has excellent cultural vessels, but not much artistic contents to match their containers.

Consider the case of stage-play. A stage work presentation not only needs a good theater (hardware) but also an excellent playwright and director, not to speak of first-class performers (software). What moves the audience is not the glitter of the stage but resonating lines and unforgettable acting. The magic of artistic presentation lies in the combination of these software qualities with good hardware.

By the same token, spectacular historical remains or breathtaking landscape are of themselves inadequate to sustain a successful tourism business. They must be supported by convenient accommodations and state-of-the-art software to be fully enjoyable by discerning tourists.

It's the power of idea (software) that adds value to a tourism product. Tourism is an idea war. The world is full of tourist sites that have thrived on the strength of a single good idea. The city of Edinburgh in Scotland attracts 13 million visitors a year by holding dozens of festivals all the year round. Similarly, Yufuin in Oita, Japan draws some three million tourists annually with a variety of events such as drama and cinema festivals.

Depending on the kind of software values you add to hardware facilities, the tourism industry can produce a dramatically different result. Korea will lose its competitiveness in the global tourism market by focusing solely on hardware aspects. For Korea to be more successful in the tourism market, it must first consider what kind of attractions it should develop and what sort of excitement and experience it should offer. The future of Korea's tourism industry depends on competitive power of its software which is based on creative ideas, not on the size of massive, gaudy buildings.

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