Understanding what the world of tourism is like in different destinations around the globe is crucial to sustain a balanced tourism approach – that is, making sure that tourists get what they expect from a trip and destinations can showcase their uniqueness without hampering locals’ way of life. To understand the tourism market in Seoul, Korea, we approached the Seoul Tourism Organization (STO).

We had the pleasure of interviewing Mr Jae-sung Rhee, President and CEO of the Seoul Tourism Organization (STO). Prior to taking the helm of STO, Rhee served at the Korea Tourism Organization for 33 years. He also received a doctorate from Kyung Hee University’s Graduate School of Tourism.

Jae-sung Rhee, STO - tourism market in Korea
Jae-sung Rhee, President and CEO of the Seoul Tourism Organization (STO)

Read on to understand the tourism market in Seoul, the capital of South Korea.

What is the tourism market in Seoul, Korea like? What is the expected growth rate?

Korea had approximately 17 million visitors in 2016, but due to geopolitical issues with North Korea and China, that number dropped to 13 million last year. The good news is that from January to April of 2018, international tourist arrivals increased by 6.2% relative to the same period last year.

In particular, the number of visitors from the Asia-Pacific region grew by 7.8%. Thanks to the positive stream of recent developments, including improved relations between the Koreas and China, it is estimated that the number of inbound tourists will grow to 15 million in 2018, a 15% rise from last year.

What is your professional opinion on Millennials as a target audience? Would Millennials be considered the biggest or fastest growing audience for Tourism for the coming few years?

In Korea and destinations around the world, millennials are a huge market. Visitors in their 20s and 30s make up 45% of the tourist market in Korea, according to the national Tourism Knowledge & Information System.

Visitors to Korea in their 20s, who accounted for 16.5% of total tourists in 2008, now make up 25% of total visitors in 2018 – a 50% increase – the highest increase among age groups, as well. Millennials appear to be the biggest and fastest growing audience for tourism to Korea.

And this is a global trend, too. According to the UNWTO and WYSE Travel Confederation’s Global Report Power of Youth Travel 2016, young people between the ages of 16 to 29 accounted for 23% of total tourists, and the international youth tourism market increased from US$190 billion in 2009 to $286 billion in 2014 and is expected to grow to surpass US$400 by 2020.

What are the initiatives taken by Tourism Boards to target different age groups? Are Tourism Boards taking any initiatives aimed particularly at Millennials? If yes, what are they?

For tech-savvy audiences, which includes many millennials, the Seoul Tourism Organization promotes on multiple social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram. The city also leverages Seoul’s appeal as a centre for Hallyu (i.e., the Korean Wave), youth, and tech. For example, last year, upon release of global K-pop boy band BTS’s Seoul promotional song “With Seoul,” a surge of fans visited the Seoul Tourism Organization’s website, www.visitseoul.net, causing it to crash.

Targeting millennial audiences, the Seoul Tourism Organization also develops Hallyu tourism content, including an e-sports stadium program and stamp tour course of the best Hallyu hot spots, like SMTOWN@coexartium and K-Star Road.

Do you feel people are still heavily dependent on travel agents and offline agencies to plan their trips? If yes, why? If no, what medium do you think they depend on? What impact do you think the digital medium is making towards establishing travel trends? Do you feel that people are now shifting to the digital medium more and more for their travel needs?

Tourists are relying much less on travel agents and offline agencies and are increasingly using the Internet and web-based apps for their travel planning needs. Over 80% of visitors to Seoul surveyed in 2017 reported using the Internet to plan their travel while only 33.3% indicated that they used travel agencies. Of those that used the Internet, 83.2% used portal sites. And 38.6% used social media – a more than 7-point increase since 2016.

The benefits of social media for travel are clear; before travelling, visitors can look up other travellers’ social media posts and see actual reviews and image information, which helps them make travel choices. More than 60% of visitors to Seoul from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other Asian countries surveyed in 2017 reported using mobile Internet to get travel information – an increase from the year prior. While in Seoul, a whopping 93.1% of visitors surveyed in 2017 used the mobile Internet – an 8.2-point increase from 2016.

Because travel planning is now easier and more accessible to the general public, we are seeing the share of free independent tourists (FITs) is growing in the tourism market. In Korea as a whole, the share of FIT travellers in the tourism market grew to 82.8%, a 15.4%-increase over 2016.

The digital medium is allowing travellers to make more independent travel choices and seek out more unique experiences. Take, for example, Airbnb, One More Trip, our online platform where travellers can search for unique experiences, and Seoul Stay, where visitors can book unique traditional Korean Hanok guesthouses.

Do you see Millennials and the generation succeeding them moving completely towards the digital medium in the coming years?

Certainly, millennials are tech-savvy travellers. Nearly 67% of visitors to Seoul in their 20s and 62.3% of those in their 30s reported using mobile Internet to get travel information – both rates which increased from the year prior. More than 60% of teenage travellers surveyed also reported using the Internet to get travel info.

But interestingly, about 55.3% and 13.4% of visitors in their 20s also reported getting information by word of mouth and tourist guidebooks, respectively – an increase over last year, as well.

So while it’s clear that most millennials are comfortable using digital media, it seems they have not abandoned more offline sources of travel information quite yet.

What is the roadmap for addressing tourism trends for the next five years?

Fair and sustainable tourism is definitely the trend in tourism. Problems arise when you only seek qualitative growth and consumer-centric tourism, like instances of over-tourism and conflicts between tourists and local residents due to a lack of understanding and respect for the local history, culture, and environment.

Here in Seoul, for example, residents of the famous attraction Bukchon Hanok Village faced challenges like tourists trespassing, littering, and causing too much noise. This month, the city government worked with local residents to introduce tourism hours and guides in the area to control disruptive behaviour.

It is necessary to establish a win-win tourism culture based on mutual understanding and respect between tourists and local residents.

This year, Seoul is hosting the 7th UNWTO Global Summit on Urban Tourism and the Seoul International Fair & Sustainable Tourism Forum 2018 to discuss a future of fair, inclusive, and sustainable urban tourism, one which we hope can be shared not just in Seoul but with cities around the world.

We are pleased to have received these insights from Mr Jae-sung Rhee, President and CEO of the Seoul Tourism Organization (STO) and we hope it leaves a positive mark on tourists and tourism destinations alike.
Before you leave here are some popular attractions in Seoul
Seoul at Night
Seoul at Night
Cruise on the Han River in Seoul - tourism market in Korea
Cruise on the Han River in Seoul
DDP in Dongdaemun Seoul - tourism market in Korea
DDP in Dongdaemun Seoul
Seoul City Hall - tourism market in Korea
Seoul City Hall

Follow the Seoul Tourism Organization’s handles on Facebook and Instagram to get your latest updates.

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