South Korea saw the number of foreign travelers to the country slide from a record high of 17.24 million in 2016 to 15.34 million last year.
With more than 28 million Koreans going on overseas trips in 2018, the nation’s tourism deficit doubled from a year earlier to $13.8 billion in the year.
In a reflection of the sluggish tourism business, 237 hotels operating in the red around the country were put up for court auction in the first quarter of this year. The figure represented a 50 percent increase from the same period last year.
It was against this background that President Moon Jae-in last week presided over a meeting of tourism-related officials for the first time since he took office in May 2017. The previous such meetings held over the past two years were chaired by his prime minister.
During last week’s meeting attended by some 150 officials from local tour agencies and related organizations, Moon called for stepped-up efforts to attract more foreign tourists, noting the tourism industry is a key driving force of economic growth.
A booming tourism industry could help shore up the economy troubled by falling exports of goods and sluggish domestic demand. The sector’s employment inducement coefficient -- which refers to the number of new jobs created by a certain amount of investment -- is more than double that of the manufacturing industry.
Moreover, an advanced tourism industry results in enhancing the quality of life for local people as well, as it is related to culture, food, health care and beauty businesses.
Over the past two years, the Moon administration has pledged to develop the tourism sector into a high-value-added industry. But its pledge has not been followed by concrete plans and action.
Though belated, at last week’s meeting it unveiled a comprehensive tourism strategy aimed at attracting 23 million foreign travelers by 2022, which is expected to create 960,000 jobs in tourism and related industries.
Under the strategy, the government will push to turn one of the country’s metropolitan cities into a global tourist destination in addition to Seoul and the resort island of Jeju, while developing four provincial cities as regional tourism hubs.
The Demilitarized Zone that divides the two Koreas is planned for development into a new ecotourism destination.
The strategy crafted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism also calls for the full utilization of Korean culture, noticeably K-pop and esports, to attract more foreign tourists. Preparations will be made to hold K-pop concerts at least twice a year and host international gaming competitions.
But it is still hard to expect these measures to promote the country’s tourism sector in the long term. Conspicuously missing from last week’s announcement were concrete standards for selecting places to be developed into a global tourism destination and regional tourism hubs, and details on support to be provided to them.
At the meeting, Moon said Korea is a country attractive to foreigners, which offers both variety and dynamism in all aspects from history and culture to the economy and environment.
It is good for Moon to express confidence in the country’s potential as a tourism destination.
But he should recognize what prevents the tourism industry from developing further is regulatory barriers.
Environmental restrictions have barred the construction of cable cars in mountainous areas that account for two-thirds of the country’s territory.
Korea also has lagged behind other countries in medical tourism due to regulations. In 2017, Thailand and Singapore attracted 2.7 million and 1.5 million medical tourists, respectively, while the corresponding figure for Korea was a paltry 360,000.
The Moon administration should draw lessons from consistent and persistent efforts by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration over past years to lift regulations and strengthen support in a bid to boost Japan’s tourism industry. Abe has presided over a tourism-related meeting attended by all cabinet members twice each year.
As a result, the number of foreign travelers to Japan exceeded 31 million last year -- more than double the figure for Korea.
Moon should go beyond a one-time show of interest to lay the foundations for concerted policies to advance the country’s tourism sector in the long term.