Korea's tourism industry has been forced to wake up and improve by the shock of a Chinese boycott.
A key example is Nami Island in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, which was the background for memorable scenes in the hit Korean soap "Winter Sonata."
Before China banned so-called zero-dollar group tours to Korea in protest against the deployment of a Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense battery, the island saw about 350,000 Chinese tourists a year. But Southeast Asian tourists are comfortably replacing them because facilities are of high quality and they can experience more than being herded around shopping venues and identikit mass accommodation.
The island has made active promotion efforts, and now the number of tourists from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam is estimated to have surged more than 50 percent from 368,000 in 2012 to around 568,000 this year. That means the total number of visitors to the island this year could drop only 16 percent on-year, even though the number of Chinese visitors has fallen 78 percent.
Prof. Lee Ki-jong at Kyunghee University, said, "Nami Island offers hands-on tourism experiences catering to the needs of visitors, which is setting a great example for others to follow."
Industry insiders accept that the Chinese boycott is a wakeup call and want the government to come up with policies aimed at improving the quality of Korea's tourism industry rather than depending numbers alone.
New and high value-added products need to include fine cuisine, luxury tours and medical and beauty services. Rather than promoting cheap group tours, the industry will have to focus on appealing to individual tourists who are willing to spend more money to satisfy their tastes and visit again.
Kwon Byung-jeon at the Korea Tourism Organization said, "The per-capita expenditure of foreign tourists visiting Korea is US$1,625, but visitors coming here for beauty treatments spend $2,914 and those who come for medical treatment spend $9,721."
Jeju Island is also transforming itself from catering to cheap package tours to more diverse experiences. According to the Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Tourism Association, the number of Chinese tourists on the resort island in the first 10 months of this year plunged 75 percent from 2016 to 688,000.
But total visitor numbers fell only seven percent because Korean visitors from the mainland increased 10 percent to 11.4 million and from Hong Kong and Japan 21 percent and eight percent.
Unlike Chinese tourists, who tend to crowd to the main sightseeing spots, duty-free shops, souvenir stores and downtown restaurants, these tourists prefer to venture off the beaten track to hidden places for unusual experiences and generate revenues for local villagers.
Now, rather than hoping for Chinese tour groups to return, locals are saying the boycott has come as a blessing in disguise. But other insiders say Korea's tourism industry still has a long way to go in improving infrastructure, boosting flights from Southeast Asia and other parts of the world and targeting individual nations with its marketing campaigns.
Malaysian tourists play in artificial snow on Nami Island in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province last week.