South Korea: land of the yawning calm

THIS year is proving to be disastrous for the South Korean tourism industry - in spite of an upsurge of visitors from Hong Kong.

Despite the holding of an international exposition and the designation of 1994 as ''Visit Korea Year'', arrivals to the Land of the Morning Calm from other major markets have been plunging.

''We can no longer be complacent,'' said Youn-Tai Chi, president of the Korean National Tourism Corpn (KNTC). ''Despite our best efforts there are negative elements working against the development of tourism in Korea.'' Tourism officials have been hard-pressed to explain the declining enthusiasm. Analysts blame a number of factors, including short-sighted restrictions placed on the industry by an official austerity drive, the worldwide recession and a lack of ingenuity in selling the peninsula's attractions to the outside world.

Then there is the under-developed tourism infrastructure, the high cost of visiting Korea and Seoul's notoriously unpleasant taxi drivers.

In the first four months of this year, total arrivals were down more than 15 per cent. Japan, traditionally Korea's most important market with a 40 per cent share, plunged about 13 per cent in the same period.

At the same time, the breaking of diplomatic relations with Taiwan - which last year accounted for 10 per cent of visitors to Korea - caused a 63 per cent decrease in Taiwanese visitors. Korea has just announced it is opening its doors to tourists from mainland China in a bid to increase revenue.

And a three-month Expo in Taejon kicks off this Saturday. Organizers are hoping about 10-million Koreans - and 500,000 foreign tourists - will visit the show.

Hoteliers and diplomats agree that the target for foreign visitors could fall far short of the goal.

As for Visit Korea Year, during which it has been forecast 4.5 million people will visit the country, officials are scrambling to rescue the event from failure.

The promotional event is being held at the same time as Visit Malaysia Year and efforts to market the year got off the ground late.

Mr Chi said the KNTC is considering working with Malaysian officials next year to hold joint promotions, such as discounted package tours that encompass both countries.

Westin Hotels & Resorts Managing Director for Korea Robert Fitzner said that while there was a six-year build-up for the Seoul Olympic Games, almost no work has been done for Visit Korea Year. ''The whole thing has been very late,'' he said.

If a turn-around in tourism arrivals is to happen next year, analysts say a major review has to be launched in how Korea is sold to the outside world. Only recently has this happened, with the KNTC launching new campaigns to promote Korea's attractive ski resorts.

Mr Chi said the country has a lot to offer. Some of Korea's winter destinations compare with those in Switzerland, he said.

Still, there is widespread scepticism.

''They haven't been able to get their act together on tourism,'' said Bruce Cheesman, economics editor of monthly magazine Korea Economic Report. ''Even though the government has agreed it's a problem they've actually done very little.'' Christopher Park, marketing director for Hyatt Hotels in Korea, said the image of Korea has to be re-packaged in order to lure foreign tourists.

''They should come out with something that really turns poeple on, rather than just selling it as the Land of the Morning Calm. This slogan doesn't excite the people.'' The Westin's Mr Fitzner said tourism officials have to find ways to encourage tourists to make trips beyond Seoul. He said there are myriad cultural destinations throughout the peninsula which tourists do not know about.

Mr Park said one of the few positive factors is that with the appreciation of the yen, more Japanese will be coming to Korea.

Almost everyone agrees it is time for the Korean Government to review aspects of the austerity drive which stifle tourism.

To limit conspicuous consumption, the Government has implemeted measures that range from discouraging Koreans to spend huge sums of money abroad to declaring golf off limits for officials.

Because of the pervasive atmosphere of nervousness the campaign has caused, ostentatious banquets and balls have become a thing of the past.

Managers of deluxe hotels in Seoul have blamed the campaign for an alarming drop in food and beverage sales.

Mr Park said food and beverage at the Grand Hyatt Seoul is down by as much as 40 per cent. ''The austerity drive has certainly had an effect.'' The same campaign has forced hotels like the Hyatt to close their saunas once-a-week and discos and pubs at midnight - which some hotelliers feel discourages foreign tourists.

There is talk that the midnight curfew and restrictions on saunas could be lifted in time for Expo this weekend.

Foreign carriers are also feeling the pinch of the austerity drive.

Cathay Pacific manager for Korea, Robin Bevin, said business in first class out of Korea is down about 20 per cent this year - and that the austerity drive is a big factor.

If there is any good news to come out of the recent tourism arrival statistics, it is from Hong Kong.

According to new figures released by the Korean National Tourism Corpn, between January and April of this year, arrivals from Hong Kong posted a 87.6 per cent increase over the same period last year. Arrivals reached 54,000 compared to 28,800 for the same period last year.

Mr Chi said he believes more Hong Kong people are coming to Korea because of heavier promotional efforts in the territory and Korea's attraction as a winter vacation destination.

Almost 100,000 Hong Kong people visited Korea in 1992.

Korean tourism officials are hard-pressed to explain the unique situation with Hongkong.

''It's amazing,'' said Mr K.H. Hwang, assistant manager for the KNTC's Southeast Asia section.

''I think snow in winter is very attractive for Hong Kong people,'' Mr Chi told the South China Morning Post.

''Also our prices are competitive. We offer good accommodation and very reasonable prices.''