By Zsarlene B. Chua

“KOREA TOURISM is back to normal,” was the first line in the statement released by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) during its Korea Incentive Roadshow which rolled out on Sept. 3 at the Fairmont Hotel in Makati City. It has been a turbulent few months for Asia’s fourth largest economy as May saw the start of the MERS-CoV (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome-Corona virus) epidemic which left 35 people dead and thousands in quarantine.

The outbreak — which was officially declared over on July 28 as announced by South Korean Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn — stymied tourist arrivals (and the country’s entire economy as the Bank of Korea downgraded its 2015 economic outlook from 3.1% to 2.8% according to the Guardian) and prompted the KTO to scale down its 2015 tourist target from 15.5 million to 15 million.

“We suffered very much [with] the MERS outbreak. So around June we suffered a 41% decline [in tourist arrivals] compared to last year,” Keehun Kim, executive director of the Korea MICE Bureau, told BusinessWorld shortly before the program started. Similarly, July arrivals were down 53% compared to July last year.

Mr. Kim added that they lost “at least a million” tourists during the months of the outbreak and were inundated by cancellations as tour groups decided to go elsewhere for their MICE (meetings, incentives, conventions and exhibitions) activities.

“But we recovered quickly after announcing the termination of MERS-CoV by the government — it was during the beginning of August,” he said. The country welcomed 1.1 million travelers in August.

Mr. Kim assured that all is now well in South Korea and encouraged MICE-ers to come and visit the country. Now that normalcy has been restored, it is on track to achieve its tourist arrival targets.

This year, the KTO road show focused on incentive groups from the Philippines.

“Last year, we welcomed 14.2 million foreign travelers,” Mr. Kim said.

Of the 14 million, around 1.1 million came to South Korea for MICE.

“[MICE-ers] largely [come from] China as incentive groups,” he explained. The largest incentive contingent they had in 2014 was from multilevel marketing company Amway China which had 18,000 people.

Meanwhile, they recorded 3,400 MICE travelers from the Philippines.

“But [the Philippine contingent] is increasing very rapidly — in 2013, it was just 1,200,” he said. He attributed the growth to continuing the Korean wave (also known as Hallyu) in popular culture and the lure of Korean shopping.

“We are focusing mostly on incentive groups from banks, insurance companies, and pharmaceuticals — they are our major target for the incentive groups,” Mr. Kim added as according to their statistics, these industries are their “target segments.” In contrast, when it comes to China, the major target for incentives are multilevel marketing companies.

The road show presented team-building programs and tours for groups and highlighted some of the country’s festivals such as the Hwacheon trout festival in February where participants can try their hand at ice fishing or view the ice sculptures “which took 20 weeks to prepare” according to the KTO Web site ( and sample the aforementioned trout. Then there is the Seoul Lantern Festival in November where locals put up a “remarkable display of lanterns” on the famous Cheonggyecheon stream in downtown Seoul. These are just some of the among activities listed to home in the point Velika de Jesus, KTO Manila assistant manager, made during the program — “Korea is the incentive.”