The Marmot's Hole

Korea... in Blog Format

Tag: tourism

Chinese tourists feel disrespected in Korea: Ye Olde Chosun

Despite being the biggest customers in the Korean tourism market—both in terms of numbers and money spent—many Chinese tourists come away with bad feelings.

Or so reports the Chosun Ilbo, citing a poll it took of 100 Chinese tourists in Myeong-dong, Dongdaemun and Gangnam taken last year.

A full 25% of respondents said their image of Korea worsened after actually visiting the country. In particular, 37% responded that they were the target of real or perceived contempt from Koreans. Only 10% said they’d felt such contempt when traveling in other countries, which would suggest—says the Chosun—that globe-trotting Chinese tourists get such a strongly negative impression only in Korea.

Chinese not only accounted for a full third of all the foreigners who entered Korea last year, but they also spend the most money here. In 2012, the average Chinese tourist spent USD 2,153.7 in Korea, 140% the foreign tourist average of USD 1,529.5. They also spent USD 378 per day; likewise, this was the highest among foreign tourists. Chinese tourists are also responsible for a considerable amount of added value—perhaps as much as KRW 7 trillion’s worth.

Of the disrespected Chinese tourists, 12 said they were verbally disrespected, 11 pointed to facial expressions, and eight cited body language.

One 20-something Chinese tourist the Chosun met in Myeong-dong recently was pissed off about an incident that took place in a subway. On the second day of her visit, she was talking in Chinese with her friend on the subway when an ajumma tapped her with her foot and motioned for her to go into another carriage. She could feel the contempt in her eyes, she said. At Dongdaemun Market, the only time she felt welcomed was when she handed over money.

When Chinese tourists head off the major tourist track, things get even worse. Volunteer Chinese interpreters say the places about which they get the most complaints are the well-known beauty salons in places like Sinchon and Apgujeong (Marmot’s Note: Well-known hair stylists? Being dicks? To tourists? Noooooooooooooooo!). One volunteer said he took a 20-something Chinese woman to a hair stylist in front of Ewha, but when they got there the owner’s faced turned sour. The volunteer said the open display of dislike was embarrassing.

Despite this, Korean officials are still saying there’s nothing to worry about. A government survey on inbound tourism taken this year showed the Chinese tourists were highly satisfied with their travel experience, scoring 4.14 points out of 5. This was the same level of satisfaction as the total average. Experts say this is an illusion, however. The government polls are often given of tourist groups at select shopping malls, hotels and restaurants—places where tourists are unlikely to meet the “real Korea,” so to speak.

China experts warn the impact of this goes beyond money—it could affect the entire Sino-Korean relationship. One foundation director head said the Sino-Korean relationship was an important matter on which Korea’s future depended, and lessening the gap in culture and values was the basis of diplomacy, both at the private and government levels. He added that this social value was a national asset much more important than money.

Marmot’s Note: Being from New York, I just naturally assume tourists are treated like jerks and am pleasantly surprised when they aren’t.

Speaking of which, somebody posted this on Facebook yesterday. I thought it was hella funny:

Anyway, Korean readers, on your way home today, please hug a Chinese tourist. They apparently need one.

Using ‘Gangnam Style’ to attract Stylish Tourists to Gangnam…

hey folks, the Seoul Tourism Organization made a new PR video to promote visits to Seoul called, “What is Gangnam Style?”
See what you think of it:

There’s a contest to enter after watching it, offering 2 tix to Seoul + some Amazon gift cards — but it ends on Dec 12th.
Post opinions of this vid in the Comments…

And as long as I have you here, a few more personal announcements: I’ll be interviewed on TBS radio at 1130 on this coming Tuesday the 11th, talking about the prospects of my campaign for getting Korea’s most sacred mountains registered as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. I’ll be teaching a course on traditional Korean Buddhist art at Dongguk University for their winter semester Dec21 ~ Jan 18, if anybody would like to register for that. And, I have put a very valuable matched-pair of paintings from my Korean folk-art collection up for sale, See: if interested, if you are a serious collector or know somebody who is.

Gangnam Style and Korea’s branding failures

In the FT, former FT Seoul correspondent Christian Oliver points out how Gangnam Style has exposed the failures of Korea’s state-focused efforts to boost its national brand:

During my years as the FT’s correspondent in Korea, I was grilled on panels and radio shows about why I thought such a well-intentioned body was redundant. This was sensitive territory. South Koreans are rightfully indignant that they have been overshadowed by China and Japan despite everything their rags-to-riches nation has achieved.

They certainly do deserve a better global image. However, interference from a state body should belong to a bygone era of central planning and output targets. You cannot forge soft power in the same way as you pick industrial champions. Absurdly, Korean officials insisted the G20 summit in Seoul in 2010 – a technical meeting about global economic policy – would raise the popularity of the national brand.

My argument ran that Korea’s breakthrough would arrive as a big cultural accident, unaided by bureaucrats. Seoul’s government is notorious for its lack of faith in its own people, who are even forbidden to read North Korean websites, but I argued it should just leave its people to their own devices and accept that Korean panache would shine through unexpectedly. I guessed the turning point would be a film. Maybe a sportsperson. (For me, Shin A-lam, the tearful Olympic fencer who spent a lonely, hour-long vigil of protest on the piste believing she had been robbed of a medal epitomised the pride and burn-yourself-to-ashes passion of the real Korean brand.)

I wrote a guidebook for a government organization, so I’m going to excuse myself from this discussion, other than to say he’s right that the “epic saga” of Korean contemporary history is very much what makes this place special (argued later in the column), but it’s a political minefield since there’s still a great deal of disagreement over both the narrative and its details. This makes dealing with the “country’s more colourful but darker recesses” a slightly nerve-wracking experience, especially if you’re a “state script,” as he puts it.

Arirang TV interview on Korea’s mountains and their spirits

Just to let you all know, i will be the guest on the 1-hour “Heart to Heart” interview-show of Arirang TV tomorrow (Monday 22nd), broadcast at 9am, 3pm & 9pm (and once more at 3am Tuesday — all are Korea time zone of course). It’s a wide-ranging discussion of my research on the Sanshin Mountain-spirits, the sacred mountains of Korea, my advocacy of UNESCO designation of them as World Heritage Sites, and the improved promotion of Korean Tourism — and a little personal stuff. See this page of their site.

If you miss those broadcasts and still want to see it, or if you want to show it to somebody else, a few days later it will be in their VOD service (video-on-demand archives) in the Heart to Heart section. You can watch it anytime there; have to register but that’s free.

Maybe, this bit of publicity will help me get a new full-time job :-)

’33 restaurants to eat at before you die’ and ’99 local tourist spots Koreans must visit’

The Weekly Hanguk (Korean) selected “33 restaurants you must go to before you die,” sorted by province. Some interesting choices on there.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Culture and KTO have selected “99 local tourist sites Koreans should definitely visit.” Give the list a look.

2nd Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trek Launches on Saturday Sept 1st

The second trial-run of the Wonhyo Pilgrimage Trail will kick-off with a dinner in Gyeongju Friday evening, and an early-morning start from Bunhwang-sa on Saturday — finishing that day’s trek at Gogul-sa and then pressing onward north then west. This is a religious-tourism project a few of us woiguks have been planning & pushing since 2007, with support from some Korean friends. This time the pilgrims will be making a pro-quality video as they go, recording the landscapes, temples & villages along the way, and interviewing monks about Wonhyo’s philosophy & other Buddhist ideas. Should be some adventurous fun, again!

Here is Tony’s recent press-release:
Second Wonhyo pilgrimage aims to re-enact Korean saint’s journey of 1,300 years ago

SEOUL – On September 1 a group of seven pilgrims will leave Bunwhang-sa temple in Gyeonju to re-enact the famous journey the Korean Buddhist saint Wonhyo made from Gyeongju to the area of Gaya-san Wonhyo-bong near the west coast port of Dangjin, more than 1,300 years ago.

This is the second Wonhyo pilgrimage. The first one, an exploratory trip, took place in December of last year. In that journey, the pilgrims covered just shy of 500 km, much of which was walked along back roads and mountain tracks. The journey took them from Gyeongju, ancient capital of the Korean Shilla kingdom, to what is known as Wonhyo’s cave near Dangjin, on the west coast of South Chungcheong Province. The second pilgrimage is expected to finish in the same place.

Tony MacGregor, one of the organizers of the pilgrimage, said the first journey was an inspiring experience. “We saw a side of Korea that is usually hidden – a wonderful kindness, and a profound spiritual culture that is very open. In fact, we were so impressed that this time we decided to make a documentary film of our journey, interview the monks we meet on the way and record their way of life.”

Wonhyo’s journey resulted in his enlightenment. Legend has it that he and fellow spiritual seeker Uisang, took shelter from a storm in an old tomb they thought was a cave. During the night Wonhyo became thirsty and began searching on the ground for a gourd of water. He found one and picked it up and drank deeply from it. The water was sweet and refreshing and he slept deeply until dawn. In the morning he discovered that the vessel he had drunk from was not a gourd but a human skull. It was not filled with sweet, clean water but instead was full of dirty rainwater, rotting meat and maggots. He was so revolted by what he had drank that he fell on his knees and vomited. At that moment, the question came to his mind “Why? Why was the water so sweet and refreshing in the night and yet so revolting in the day?” The answer came to him that it was his mind that determined the difference between the water at night time and in daytime, not the water itself. He realized that truth is created by the mind. At that moment, he attained enlightenment.

On the first pilgrimage, after their arrival at Wonhyo’s cave on December 18, the pilgrims celebrated the saint’s enlightenment by drinking pure spring water from vessels they took to the cave during a brief ceremony. “It was a wonderful way to finish what had been a series of incredible hikes from temple to temple to minbak (family inn) across the Korean Peninsula,” said Tony MacGregor, who conceived the idea of the pilgrimage in 2007 when he was working in Korea as a journalist. “We plan to do the same thing at the end of this second pilgrimage.”

The cave, he said, is an unpretentious place, a dark hole gouged into a huge rock, a good place to shelter from rain but not a comfortable place to spend a night. It was once venerated as the home of a mountain spirit before Wonhyo meditated in it , after which it became a Buddhist shrine honoring him. The cave provided a symbolic end to the journey, he said, and was not the actual tomb where Wonhyo attained enlightenment, a spot about which there is no consensus.

MacGregor said the pilgrimage was a joint effort between him and his friends and was inspired by the kindness and goodwill from Koreans that he and his friends had experienced during their stays in Korea. “We wanted to say thank you to Korea and Koreans in a special way, and what better way than through a pilgrimage to honor Korea’s most beloved and respected Buddhist saint, Wonhyo.”

MacGregor thanks the Templestay Program and the Jogye Order for their help and cooperation with the project.

More information about the pilgrimage can be found at

Media attention and any othe support or interest is welcome!
CONTACTS:     Tony MacGregor, 010-8694-1250.        Chris McCarthy,
David A. Mason, 82-10-9734-9753, in Seoul

Photos from the launch of the first trek last December.
I’ll post the schedule in the comments…

Gee, I wonder why that is…

Yonhap reports that more foreigners visited Korea than Japan between January and April.

American woman attacked in Myeong-dong: report

Yonhap reports that an American woman in her 40s, an employee of the US embassy in Japan in Korea as a tourist, was attacked by an unknown assailant in the shopping district of Myeong-dong.

According to police, the attack took place at 8pm Tuesday. The assailant, a man who appears to be in his 20s and wearing a black hat at the time, stabbed the woman three times in the stomach region and fled, but not before dropping the knife, which was knocked out of his hand by an umbrella wielded by a person the victim was with.

The woman was wearing a long scarf covering her stomach region, so she was not injured in the attack.

Shopping, Taxis Annoy Tourists… Especially Japanese Ones

According to the Korea Tourism Organization, many of the complaints they get regard shopping and taxi fares:

A recent survey conducted by the Korea Tourism Organization shows that the number of calls made by disgruntled tourists in 2009 saw a 13.4 percent increase from the previous year.

Of the complaints, difficulties while shopping and disputing costs of taxi fares topped the list with 32.5 percent and 17.5 percent of the total 468 complaints filed.

“Our experience was pleasant up until we walked out of the key attractions around the city,” Watanabe said. “It was when we hopped into a taxi and began getting around town that our trip became unpleasant. We really feel as though we spent twice the amount of our travel budget, and I hate it. In their defense, the drivers just say they don’t understand what we’re saying, but I find it personally inconvenient. It’s made me disdainful of the drivers here.”

One Seoul taxi driver took exception:

When asked about taxi scams, Baek Ki-chun, 62, a taxi driver, was quick to defend his profession.

“That was only during the old days when you saw drivers hanging around the airport looking for people to rip off,” he said. “Nowadays, we don’t do stuff like that to tourists, because we care very much about giving the best impression possible of our country to foreign guests when they visit.”

Baek, a 15-year veteran, conceded later that there might be some who take advantage of tourists. “Look, in countries like Japan, you don’t see drivers committing such shameful acts because their drivers get all the proper employee benefits and a respectable salary, regardless of how many passengers they get per day,” he said.

Miscommunication with drivers is another issue, although fortunately, some Japanese tourists have taken to printing out maps to help smooth things along.

Of course, language is always an issue… and one about which there is apparently some disagreement:

Some Koreans have been saying for years that foreign tourists should be expected to possess a minimum level of Korean. Others ask for better English education in the travel industry here, citing Europe, Southeast Asia, Africa and the Middle East as places where locals communicate with tourists primarily in English, rather than in their own local languages.

“It’s difficult to say whether we are trying too hard to cater and to accommodate foreign tourists and not encouraging them more to try and speak Korean,” said Kang Oki, the Korea Tourism Organization’s executive director of public relations.

“I know that when I travel abroad and I see a leaflet or information booklet with a section translated into Korean, I feel good and feel even welcomed. I believe there’s no harm in that,” she added.

I think phrasebooks are always a good thing to bring along when you travel — trying to communicate is part of the fun, after all, and it’s just common politeness to at least try to communicate with locals in their language — but it seems to me the KTO is in the business of making things easier for tourists (not the business of promoting the Korean language, which is the business of its parent organization, the Ministry of Culture), and that it’s in the best interests of tourism-related industries to have staff that can communicate with their customers.

Seoul Third Most Hated City in the World?

Sunrise over Yeouido
Sunset over a “heartless, spiritless” city

OK, so the Lonely Planet website releases a list of its readers’ — or at least its blog’s readers’ — least favorite cities.

And yes, Seoul got third place.

Detroit — all the scenic charm, security and good governance of Grozny, without the dramatic background story! — got first place, further reinforcing my suspicion that the NYT’s inclusion of the city in its list of places to visit in 2008 was a clever ploy to boost the average IQ of its readership through attrition. Most of the other cities on the list are Third World shitholes like Accra, San Salvador and Los Angeles.

Not sure how Arusha got on there, though. It’s a really pleasant town, and a lot nicer than the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma. I’ve also heard Accra ain’t so bad, either.

Back to Seoul. The poster quotes this commenter on a previous list of least favorite cities, who writes:

It’s an appallingly repetitive sprawl of freeways and Soviet-style concrete apartment buildings, horribly polluted, with no heart or spirit to it. So oppressively bland that the populace is driven to alcoholism.

No heart or spirit to it, eh? Clearly, the commenter in question has never been to Washington, DC.

I’m not sure how the list in question was composed, or how its order was determined. I’d like to thing it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, although I’m afraid Seoul’s tourism authorities might not see it that way.

Seoul has plenty of heart and spirit to it — granted, some of the more chronically bitter species of expatriate might not notice — and while nobody will deny the city has an over-concentration of concrete apartment buildings, there’s a lot of charm and beauty hiding beneath it all. You’ve just got to put down the beer bottle, get out of Itaewon and look around a bit. Maybe buy my book.

Clearly, though, Seoul could be doing a better job promoting what it has to offer, and more importantly, the city needs to realize it can’t keep flattening neighborhoods B-52-style without destroying the local culture, heritage and identity, too. Like I said, there’s still a ton of history and charm lurking beneath the concrete, but the sad fact remains that there’d be a lot more of it if city planners had made even a modest attempt to incorporate neighborhood heritage into redevelopment plans. See, for instance, Pitmatgol. Now, to be fair, there’s more awareness of the importance of preservation now than there has ever been. In my neighborhood, for example, there’s controversy over the possible destruction by KORAIL of the old Yongsan Railway Hospital (the old brick building in front of Yongsan Station, photographed and discussed here). That there’s a controversy at all is a positive development. Still, read stories like this and you realize the cause of historical preservation has a long, long way to go.

(HT to Adams-awry)

Once You’ve Had a Taste of the Marmot…

So…. TIME has done a list of, ahem, “25 Authentic Asian Experiences,” including, of course, eating roasted marmot in Mongolia.

Korea, as always, comes out on the short end of stick, with just one entry… visiting the DMZ. This reportedly annoys Korean officials, but, really, they should look at the bright side — at least Korea’s entry included no reference to donut-shaped masturbation pillows.

Another Saemanguem-style Money-Making Hub: Korean Coastal National Parks

After decades of leaving nature to itself, the government has decided that they need to “develop” Dadohae National Park into a “Northeast Asian Tourist Hub“, complete with new ports for cruise ships, hotels, and condominiums.

This idea of turning a national park into a means of making money is not a new idea. America has its debates regarding those business interests that want the money that tourism brings, however this is often balanced out by those who see the necessity in preserving nature and promoting responsible management. As in a recent NY Times blog “What would you designate (as) a National Park?“, one commenter notes:

Some of the most beautiful and unspoiled areas in the United States are beautiful and unspoiled precisely because they aren’t national parks and thus aren’t overrun with tourists and their dollars.

and another talks of the effect of commercialism upon natural wonders:

Sadly, one of our country’s–and the world’s–most iconic natural wonders missed out on the national park movement of the early 20th Century, and as a result, has been turned into something of a circus sideshow. Could it be restored to it’s natural glory? Who knows. But if any site deserves to be rated a national park, it would be Niagara Falls.

As a direct comparison with the “National Seashore” parks in America, not a single one allows for commercial development as proposed by the Korean Government for the existing parks, rather the goal of the National Park Service in the U.S. is to preserve rather than turn unspoiled areas to profit.

Apparently, based upon how this situation was explained to me, the local residents and government is more so behind this tourism effort and some have talked of having the Unification Church build a hotel in the area as well.

All this begs the question that is yet to be answered: can local government-sponsored tourism co-exist with responsible management of Korea’s natural resources? Considering what has happened at Seamanguem (50-100 year potential money-pit), there is more than a little reason to worry about what will happen if “Canal Fever” and its rush-to-riches zeal spreads to other areas of Korea without any clear centralized vision of Korea’s natural resources other than being mere sources of economic exploitation.

Just Hang It Up . . .

It seems that international tourism in Seoul has hit a language snag.  I’ve had the same happen in Cheju-do as well when attempting to rent a car.

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