Text and photos by Cecille Santillan-Visto

MENTION KOREA and images of its culture — both modern and traditional — are readily conjured. Korean pop music, beauty products, the hanbok, the colorful and vibrant Nanta, and even characters of countless Korean dramas come to mind.

Korea’s ports are calling
Participants consult on the Korean cruise market

What Korea is not widely known as — at least not yet — is a cruise destination even though this peninsula in northeast Asia is surrounded by three different seas.

With the Yellow Sea bordering its western shore, the East China Sea on the south, and the Sea of Japan on the east, the Land of the Morning Calm may well be the ideal port of call for the growing global cruise tour industry.

A cruise is a unique mode of vacation: it offers multiple destination, various onboard activities, is (usually) family friendly, and, depending on the chosen package, can be great value for money.

Based on statistics culled by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) on the Asian cruise tour industry, Shanghai still leads as far as the number of departures by home port with 437 in 2016, with Hong Kong at a distant second with 185, and Tianjin in China following with 124 departures.

While Korea has still to become a home port of major cruise lines, it is slowly making a mark in the industry by hosting foreign cruise ships in its five major cruise ports, namely Jeju, Busan, Incheon, Yeosu, and Gangwon.

In 2016, 2.26 million tourists entered Korea through foreign cruise ships. There were 821 port entries last year, nearly double the 412 port entries in 2015, bringing in 1.05 million visitors. Notably, there were only 24 foreign cruise ships when Korea opened its ports in 2004, ferrying only over 10,000 passengers.

During 4th Korea Cruise Travel Mart held in Seoul in April, Korea’s Ministry of Culture Sports and Tourism, together with the KTO, marketed the country as an ideal destination for cruise tours as it has ports and terminals in Jeju, Incheon, Busan, and Yeosu, as well as ports that can accommodate large cruise ships in Sokcho and Donghae in Gangwon.

During the event, various tour offerings were presented to entice more foreign cruise ships to dock.

“I hope that the Cruise Travel Mart serves as an important opportunity to diversify Korea’s cruise market and also to promote growth not only in terms of quantity but also of quality,” said Kyunhee Suhl, KTO’s Food and Cruise Team Director.

Michael Lim, Sales Manager of MSC Cruises, which is owned and operated by Singapore-based Modern Shipping and Travels Pte. Ltd. and one of the foreign participants of the Travel Mart, said it is interesting to learn what Korea can offer the vibrant cruise industry.

“Korea, considering that it is surrounded by seas and with its many ports, has a lot of potential (in terms of getting a fair share of the cruise market),” said Mr. Lim, at the sidelines of the Travel Mart.

MSC Cruises already has a presence in Busan and, to a certain extent, Jeju, but only operating from Shanghai.

“As a tourist destination, Korea has always been marketable because of its four seasons, which many Asian countries like Singapore do not enjoy. But cruising is an added tourism opportunity,” Mr. Lim added.

A seasoned traveler who has built his career in the travel, tourism, and hospitality industry, Mr. Lim said cruising is “ideal and hassle-free” as one needs to pack and unpack one’s bag only once. There is never a dull moment as there are many activities on board, and port stops make the whole experience more appealing.

Even among Filipinos, cruising is slowly becoming an alternative form of travel. To address the growing local demand, Star Cruises recently launched its “Jewels of the South China Sea” cruise and marked the first homeport deployment of Superstar Virgo in the Philippines.

However, as can be expected, the wise Filipino tourist would want to be apprised of what a Korean cruise stop can offer before investing his hard-earned money in what is often perceived as an expensive vacation.

Busan Port, acknowledged as Korea’s premiere port city, is comprised of the Busan International Passenger Terminal, which opened in August 2015; the Gamman Pier; and the Yeongdo Cruise Terminal, where construction is underway to expand and reinforce its berthing facilities in order to accommodate ships as large as 220,000 tons.

Busan offers five themed courses for cruise passengers. The “healing course” is unique as it takes tourists to, among others, the Igidae Skywalk, the Beomeosa Temple, and the Shinsegae Centum City, the world’s largest department store which surprisingly houses a natural hot spring.

Jeju, on the other hand, is on expansion mode, with a cruise berth to be completed and opened in the southern part of the island by the second half of the year. There are four key courses that Jeju visitors can enjoy, most noteworthy of which is the so-called Volcanic Landscape Tour Course. Passengers can visit the Manjaggul Cave, which is a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, as well as the Seongsan Ilchulbong Tuff Cone, a crater formed by a shallow underwater explosion.

Incheon, the gateway to Korea, also has five major tour courses, the primary of which is the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) Tour.

Sang Young Yoon, director of the Passenger Business Team of the Incheon Port Authority, said not only will an international passenger terminal soon rise in Incheon, but a complementary mixed-use center that will have condominium complexes, commercial establishments, schools, and other facilities that will transform the area into a smart city.

Meantime, Yeosu offers three routes that take visitors to key destinations in the city. The Expo Ocean Park Course leads to the Yeosu Expo Park, Odongdo Island, Jinamgwan Guesthouse, which is the country’s largest single wooden structure. The breathtaking view of the sea can be enjoyed from the Yeosu Ocean Railbike.

Korea’s ports are calling
Sokcho Port

In Gangwon Province, there are two ports — the Donghae and Sokcho Port, where most ships dock. As it will host the 2018 Winter Olympics Games with the events to be held in Pyeong Chang, it boasts of its Olympic Tour Course which gives visitors the chance to visit the Alpensia Resort, where the ski jumping event will be held, as well as Daegwallyeong Ranch, the only sheep farm in Korea.

Jasmin Jayeon An, marketing director of the Gangwon Maritime Tourism Center, said aside from the standard tour courses, cruise lines and tourists have more reason to include Korean facilities as their ports of call.

“There is something for everyone. Especially in Sokcho and Donghae, which are both part of Gangwon, we hold a lot of festivals and other events that will surely fascinate tourists from different countries, including the Philippines,” said Ms. An.

Korea’s ports are beckoning for a unique travel experience, it may be well worth heeding the call.