Text and photos by  Cathy Rose A. Garcia,
Associate Editor

SEOUL — About a hundred girls, including some from China and Japan, crowded the arrival area at Incheon International Airport clutching smartphones and waiting to catch a glimpse of K-pop boy band Wanna One who were coming from Manila.

At the airport’s baggage area, a billboard of girl group BlackPink welcomes tourists, while advertisements for duty-free stores feature Korean superstars like Song Hye-kyo and Lee Min-ho.

That’s the power of Hallyu or Korean Wave for you.

There’s no denying that Korea’s cultural exports, particularly K-pop music, TV dramas, and movies, have helped elevate the country’s international profile and attract 17.2 million foreign tourists in 2016.

“The Korean Wave worked very well and helped enhance South Korea’s national brand,” Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) Director for Planning and Coordination Department Kim Syung-hoon told BusinessWorld. 

“I used to work in Frankfurt and before the Hallyu, people didn’t have any clear idea of what Korea is about… These days they can clearly understand what Korea is about and what Hallyu is. We are now, thanks to Hallyu, having a distinct brand image and national image. We would like to tap into that enhanced national image,” he added.

Tourism has received a boost from the Korean Wave, with foreign fans flying to Seoul to watch concerts of their favorite K-pop groups like BTS and GOT7 or attend fan meetings of heartthrobs like Gong Yoo and Song Joong-ki. 

It’s no surprise that KTO capitalized on the Hallyu craze, using Korean stars to promote tourism. The KTO’s K-Style Hub in downtown Seoul is not just a tourism information center, but a place where tourists can learn about Korean culture and traditions, as well as take photos at a hologram booth with BigBang or 2NE1.

But the KTO acknowledges there will be a time when Hallyu stars would not be enough to keep tourists coming back. 

“Our goal is to develop more content and infrastructure that can replace Hallyu if it ends sooner or later. With these new content and infrastructure, we can attract more travelers and make them want to visit Korea,” Mr. Kim said.

KTO is adopting different strategies for markets like Europe, North America, Japan, Southeast Asia, and China.

In 2016, South Korea attracted 17.2 million foreign tourists. China was its largest source of visitors with 8 million, followed by Japan with 2.3 million, and ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) with 2.21 million.

Mr. Kim noted many tourists prefer to organize their own trips instead of joining group tours. The tourists also increasingly rely on their smartphones when they travel, using apps to make reservations and look up new places.

The KTO is also increasingly using social media as a marketing tool, tapping journalists, bloggers, and even “Instagrammers” to promote the country’s many charms.

“One specific example is we have many foreign students coming to Korea. So we selected some students as SNS (social networking service) reporters in their language, from Europe, North America, China, Southeast Asia. They travel around the country and post the information on their accounts,” Mr. Kim said.

In an effort to make it easier for foreign tourists to travel around the country, KTO is combining information communication technology (ICT) with tourism services. 

“The two biggest barriers that foreign visitors face when going to Korea are language and movement in travel, so we try to create smartphone-based services. One specific example is the expansion of the free Wifi zone… Another is an app where a menu or street signs can be translated into their own language with the help of VR (virtual reality) technology,” he said.

As the gateway to South Korea, Seoul has been continuously working to create new attractions to keep tourists coming back for more, according to Seoul Metropolitan Government director for Tourism Business Division Kim Tae-myoung.

“We want to diversify the tourism industry. Under the strategy, we try to improve the tourism environment. We also try to create barrier-free environment to attract tourists to the city. We also try to promote excellent tourism companies,” Mr. Kim told BusinessWorld.

“In particular, we are paying a lot of attention to medical tourism,” he added, noting that many tourists visit Korea for cosmetic surgery, medical checkups, and cancer treatment.

Mr. Kim said Seoul is trying to attract more tourists from Southeast Asia, especially Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

“[The] Philippines is our potential market. Next year, we have plans to go to the Philippines to attract more tourists by having more promotional activities,” he said.

Data showed the Philippines had the most number of visitors to South Korea with 556,745 in 2016, followed by Thailand with 470,107, and Malaysia with 311,254.

Shopping districts like Myeongdong and Dongdaemun are very popular among tourists, but there are always new places to visit in Seoul.

Seoul Sky, touted as the world’s third-highest observation deck, is located on the 117th to 123rd floors of Lotte World Tower. It also boasts of having the fastest double-deck elevator, bringing tourists to Seoul Sky in just a minute.

On the other hand, Seoullo 7017 and Oil Tank Culture Park are excellent examples of how Seoul transforms its old structures into something new.

Opened in May, Seoullo 7017 is a former elevated highway turned into a pedestrian walkway with trees and flowers, similar to New York City’s High Line park. 

“It’s a ‘sky park.’ You have to visit it at night for the amazing views,” Mr. Kim said.

On the other hand, the Oil Tank Culture Park, as the name suggests, was formerly an oil depot in Mapo. Unused for the past 41 years, it was opened last September as a cultural space with art exhibitions, cafés, dance performances, and a playground for children.

With these new attractions, as well as the upcoming PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in February, Korean tourism officials hope there’s enough reasons for foreigners to keep visiting next year.