Real Awakenings: Korea Uncovered

15378120993_44e1e453b7_zBy Catherine Marshall

THE landing into South Korea is quite fantastical. My Korean Airlines jet sinks gently from the sky west of the megalopolis of Seoul and touches down on a runway which, until fairly recently, was ocean. Now the gateway to South Korea, Incheon International Airport sits on the piece of land which was reclaimed and connected to two smaller landmasses to create Yeongjongdo Island.

The construction was part of a mammoth project aimed at accommodating a dramatic increase in travellers to South Korea. Featuring a golf course, spa, ice skating rink, casino and the Museum of Korean Culture, it was recently named by Skytrax as the world’s second best airport, just one step behind Singapore’s Changi Airport.

But while Incheon International Airport conspires to detain visitors with its array of activities, the lure of what lies beyond is too great. Yeongjongdo Island is itself connected to the mainland by two bridges and the mainland in turn is connected to South Korea’s abundance of cultural, historical, natural, culinary and modern wonders that are slowly coming to the attention of astute Australian travellers.

Last year, 141,201 Australians and 30,805 New Zealanders visited Korea, and in January this year, Korean Tourism Organisation (KTO) recorded an 11% increase in tourist numbers from this region. Korea’s attractions are self-evident; around every corner of this densely-populated yet orderly country lies some specimen of history and culture, world heritage and design, fashion and cosmetics, trendy restaurants, bars and street food.

The fact that its safety record is comparable with that of Japan provides yet another incentive for visitors to consider it as a holiday destination.

I focus my own explorations on Seoul, the thrumming capital city of South Korea, and am surprised to find that although its broader limits contain some 23 million people – the same size as the entire population of Australia – it is well-ordered and neat-as-a-pin. Even the bustling city streets feel friendly and navigable – an atmosphere that is enhanced by the 11 kilometre long Cheonggyecheon Stream, once an elevated concrete highway which has been transformed into a waterway flanked by trees, sculptures, self-guided walking routes and nooks for quiet contemplation. The stream is set below street level and flows right through the city.

The essence of Korea is easily discovered in the lanes and alleyways that spread outwards from Seoul’s main roads. Multilingual ambassadors from the Seoul Tourism Association – clothed in easy-to-spot red T-shirts – patrol the tourist hot spots and point me in the right direction. I lunch on bulgogi (marinated, barbecued meat served with cellophane noodles), and kimchi (Korea’s famous fermented cabbage).

I am mesmerised by street vendors selling boiled silkworms and spinning kkul tarea, a feathery sweet made from cornflour and fermented honey. I take afternoon tea with a group of felines at one of the city’s hugely popular cat cafés in Myeong-dong, a hip shopping precinct which sells edgy clothing, trendy food, futuristic cosmetics and – as is the way in modern Korea – ubiquitous cosmetic procedures.

It’s places like Myeong-dong that are helping to redefine Korea’s tourist demographic. While the country has tended to be more popular among the mature, well-travelled market, younger travellers are taking note of its reputation as a global leader in pop culture, fashion, food and cosmetics. So keen was KTO Australia to capitalise on this potential, and help grow tourist numbers to a projected 20 million this year, that it appointed The X Factor 2013 winner Dami Im as an Honorary Tourism Ambassador for Korea in Australia.

“We think that Dami’s background as a Korean Australian and her great love of her birth country, as well as her huge fan base and connection to many Australians through her music will make her the perfect tourism ambassador for Korea in Australia,” Korea Tourism Organisation director Sang Weon Je said.
It’s a strategy that has paid off, with the organisation’s online campaign which promoted Dami’s five top Korea destinations attracting four times the amount of traffic compared to regular promotions. The move has also succeeded in promoting Korea as more than just a futuristic megalopolis as it is so often represented.

As a Korean Australian, Dami has insider knowledge of the experiences likely to resonate with Aussies (see right). Her top picks move beyond the city I’ve so ravenously explored to reveal a country filled with even more enriching experiences, from the ancient to the new.

As travellers continue to search for meaningful and transformative travel experiences, the breadth of product in the adventure travel market represents a great opportunity for agents.