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[Editorial] Help drive up tourism

Biggest travel account deficit in 5 years highlights need for rethinking tourism

Jan. 12, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

South Korea chalked up a current account surplus for the seventh straight month in November. But there is a troubling detail that keeps policymakers concerned: the biggest deficit of the country’s travel account in five years.

South Korea’s travel account deficit doubled to $1.28 billion in November 2023 compared to the previous month, the Bank of Korea’s preliminary data showed Tuesday. The latest figure marks the biggest deficit since November 2018, when the travel account deficit reached $1.35 billion.

Some might wonder why the travel account numbers remain poor even though Korean culture at large, including pop music, food and beauty products, is gaining more popularity than ever around the world.

The main reason for the disappointing travel balance lies in the stubbornly wide gap between inbound and outbound travelers. Despite high interest rates and economic slump, the number of outbound travelers has been on the steady rise, reflecting the strong pent-up demand -- or what is called “revenge” travel -- following the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Korea Tourism Organization, the number of Korean holidaymakers venturing abroad from January to November last year reached 20.3 million, inching closer to figures recorded in the pre-pandemic period.

In particular, more than 2 million Korean travelers have departed for overseas destinations each month since July last year.

The favorite foreign destination is Japan, which has welcomed a whopping 6.18 million Korean visitors from January through November last year, up 15.7 percent compared to the same period in 2019. The steep depreciation of the Japanese yen against the Korean currency and a close distance combined to help make Japan become a top spot for Korean tourists. As a result, Korea ranked top among visitors to Japan, outpacing other countries by a wide margin.

In contrast to the explosive growth of outbound travelers, inbound figures appear discouraging. In the first 11 months last year, Korea attracted 9.99 million foreign visitors, which remains far lower than 17.5 million in 2019.

One important factor that dragged on the figures was slower-than-expected recovery in the number of Chinese travelers to Korea. During the above-mentioned period, the number of Chinese tourists was 1.76 million, less than a third of the figure seen in 2019. Last year, the Chinese government allowed group tours to Korea, a much-awaited development for the Korean tourism sector, but the number of Chinese group tourists is yet to rebound in a way that meets the high expectations here.

Experts say that Korean tourism officials should rethink the country’s heavy dependence on Chinese travelers. Promoting Korean tourism in other countries is needed as group tours from China can have only a limited effect due to a shifting travel trend. In recent months a growing number of young Chinese visitors prefer Korean hot spots featured in TV dramas and movies so that they can share photos on social media. Typical package tour programs cannot satisfy this type of demand.

The Korean government aims to draw 20 million inbound travelers in 2024, a lofty goal given that the total visitors last year will have amounted to slightly over 10 million. Doubling the number of inbound travelers is no easy task, especially given that the tourism sector is in dire need of innovative programs and reliable price competitiveness. Korea was 15th in the overall rankings of the 2021 travel and tourism development index of the World Economic Forum, but its price competitiveness was 80th, demonstrating the persistent problems such as price-gouging on some tourist sites as well as subpar tourism infrastructure across the nation.

Against this backdrop, conventional tour packages should be phased out in favor of new types of travel that incorporate medical services, well-being programs and Korean food sites -- some of the potentially competitive segments that can appeal to foreign visitors and generate fresh income. To seek a breakthrough in the deficit-ridden domestic tourism industry, the government must deregulate related service sectors and draw up plans to build up sophisticated travel infrastructure.