I selected the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) as my client for my Master’s degree Design Project. I selected this company for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that they need help reaching their target audiences, and perhaps a new set of targets, as well as a new strategy to promote Korean tourism to the world, and not just Asia.
Firstly, Korea hasn’t really settled on a brand image over the years. They tried to follow in the footsteps of other countries with branding strategies, such as Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia. However, the KTO has changed their brand image more than once in the four years I’ve been in the country, and has never really settled on one. I remember brands and logos including Dynamic Korea (which I thought was fine, because it captured the energy of Korea – but now the logo is used in the Korea.net logo), Korea Sparkling, and Inspiring Korea (or Korea: Be Inspired), both of which used the same logo, which, in my opinion, doesn’t truly capture the spirit of Korea. It is a simple overlapping box shape with two rather bland pastel colors, red and green, and does nothing to capture the true energy or culture of Korea.
Korea’s Tourism Perspective and Numbers
The KTO seems to view tourism and its promotion from a Korean perspective, catering to Asian markets with things that Koreans already like (it’s called the “Korean Wave” and includes dramas, pop music, and other “modern Korean culture” that is exported to nearby Asian markets). However, the KTO has done a rather poor job of reaching out to Europe and North America for tourism, and has done an especially poor job of educating people in those locations about Korea. Many people in Europe and North America know nothing about Korea except what they fear/hear about its northerly neighbor. Korea is not very globally famous (besides the North), and its tourism site does little educate potential tourists of the value of visiting the country. The current site is basically a look at what you can do in Korea if you’re already planning to travel there. It does not reach out to people who have little knowledge of Korea, grab their attentions, and make them say, “Wow, who knew Korea was so…dynamic?” Statistics on the Korea Tourism Organization’s website itself show that a just under 8% of international tourists in 2009 came from the US, which is the only non-Asian nation shown. The majority of tourists, nearly 65%, came from surrounding nations, including 39% from Japan, 17% from China, 5% from Taiwan, and 3.5% from the Philippines (KTO, 2010). To target a more diverse international market (particularly one with lots of money and interest in Asian culture, like the Americas, Australia, and Europe), the KTO needs to stop depending on what works here, and start considering what will draw in people who are relatively unfamiliar with Korea.
Rival Countries for Tourism
Korea’s closest rivals for tourism are China and Japan, which are both internationally famous for a variety of reasons. Both have long and well-known histories, including the samurai and ninja from Japan, and the Great Wall, Silk Road, and Chinese letters from China. Both have exceptional food, sushi and Chinese, and both have martial arts, karate and sumo, kung-fu and tai-chi, that are known all over the world. Both have celebrity heroes including Ken Watanabe, Hayao Miyazaki, and Hideo Kojima (Konami video game giant) from Japan, and Zhang Ziyi, Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan from China. Both have modern wonders as well – from Nintendo, Sony, Casio, other technologies, robots, and anime in Japan, to Hong Kong, the Olympics, a modern Shanghai, and Taiwan and Tibet in China. Korea has little to rival these obviously strong and lengthy histories that still invoke plenty of feelings of mystery and passion for discovery among potential travelers.
However, Japan and China are not without their weaknesses. Japan suffers from a very expensive economy, with very expensive hotels, food, and public transportation. Additionally, country-wide there is a relatively low level of usable English ability that would detract some would-be tourists. China has a huge population and many overcrowding problems. Additionally, China can be seen as still a developing country, partly modern, but partly still third-world, and much of China is covered in garbage and rubble – from new construction, or something else. Additionally, China is quite polluted, and the air in Beijing caused qualms about the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Korea’s Major Weaknesses Related to Tourism
Korea also has weaknesses that impact its tourist industry. The biggest external threat to their success is North Korea – which is the first Korea that usually comes to mind in America when someone mentions it. The negative connotations that instantly come to mind with bombs and Kim Jong-Il and human rights violations puts many travelers off when considering Korea as a leisurely destination. The KTO has a tendency to completely skip over this major point in their tourism ads, but it is a major factor that influences many peoples’ decisions about whether or not to go to Korea. Additionally, every spring, a Yellow Dust from China’s deserts circulates through Korea on the wind and covers everything in a thin yellow film. This is not very well known abroad, but it can still have an impact on the tourism industry, especially for those people who are in-country and don’t want to go out in the yellow dust. Recently, because of the global economic crisis, the Korean won has suffered, although that could go either way in the future. In the early 21st century, the Korean won exchange rate was so low that Korea was a very cheap tourist destination, at nearly half the price of Japan, but recently the exchange rate has risen markedly, and although still cheap, it’s nowhere like it was before.
Potentially Overlooked Assets to Tourism
A few things can influence Korean tourism for the better. One, there is very little extreme weather in Korea – there are almost no earthquakes, and rarely any serious typhoons. There are no tornados, volcanoes, mudslides, and hardly any floods. Additionally, Korea enjoys four obviously different seasons that can add to any tour. Korea is also full of students and parents, and a business culture that is obsessed with English. Therefore, there are many opportunities to speak English and have it spoken to you in Korea, which can make any trip for English-speaking natives far more comfortable.
Potential Tourism Niche Markets
As far as niches go, the KTO would do well to enter the social media niche by adding common social media buttons to their website. Additionally, Korea is beginning to promote medical tourism which would open the doors for international patients to come to Korea for cheaper treatment than in their home countries, similar to Singapore. They could take further advantage of this niche by emphasizing the health benefits of a Korean diet and exploring the foods that are available within Korea.
As far as its competitors go, China’s true niche is its history and historical significance. All travelers are aware of this and it is almost impossible to enter China as a visitor without encountering this aspect of China. Japan on the other hand is known as a tech giant, very modern and focused on robotics. Tourists would be hard pressed to enter Japan without encountering some form of modernization or high-tech aspect of Japanese life.
Korea likewise needs to have its own very distinct, very unavoidable, yet enjoyable, niche. And travelers need to be made aware of, and seek this niche. Because Korea was secluded from the Western world for so long, it can almost fit into a niche of mystery and discovery for travelers that don’t know much about it. However, not knowing much about a country doesn’t usually whet one’s appetite to enter that country. That being said, Korea is also a land of fusion – with fusion foods, fusion music, fusion dances, and a fusion of traditional and modern architecture and culture within the same location. Korea might do well to seek to fill the fusion niche to draw in tourists.
What about you?
What do you know of Korea? Does what I wrote resonate with you, or do you think I missed the mark somewhere? Feel free to correct me or add insight. It will help everyone better understand Korea, and will help me create a better branding and marketing campaign for my Master’s Design Project.
KTO. (2010). Key Tourism Statistics. On the Korea Tourism Organization website. Retrieved June 15, 2010 from http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/bs/tour_investment_support/invest_guidance/visit_korea_foreigner_pattern.jsp