In July 2009, Charm Lee, President of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), was appointed as the first German-born naturalized Korean to lead a state-run enterprise. Coming from Germany in 1978, Lee became a Korean citizen in 1986 after being inspired by the creativity and future potential of Korea. Before being appointed as the head of the KTO, Lee worked as a committee member of Visit Korea Year, Seoul City ambassador, and a member of the Hanshik (Korean traditional food) Globalization Promotion Team. Under Lee’s unique management philosophy and initative, last year, the KTO managed to receive the highest evaluation mark by the Korean government, which is an unprecedented achievement. The next few pages are excerpts from the interview KTO President Charm Lee gave to Asia-Pacific Business & Technology Report.
In the past, Korea’s tourism industry was criticized due to its low stature and lack of tourism resources. What attempts are being made to enhance Korea’s tourism competitiveness under your leadership?
First of all, I don’t agree with the criticism. In the case of tourism resources, we’ve got plenty of them. It depends on what you mean by the past; if it’s 30 years ago, that’s a different thing, but these resources are basically there. We’ve got nature, culture, history, urban culture and a lot of new trends that are coming out of Korea.
In order to improve our tourism competitiveness, there are two things that we need to do. One is to improve the domestic tourism culture in Korea. Infrastructure is not usually built for foreign visitors only; it is built mostly for domestic tourists to enjoy. Japan, for example, has 900,000 hotel rooms fit for tourism, whereas Korea only has 70,000. The reason Japan has so many hotel rooms is because the Japanese travel a lot and they use the hotel rooms. But in Korea, Koreans don’t travel very much to the countryside or the tourism areas in Korea. If they do, they usually don’t stay overnight. So, what we need to do is to create more of the domestic tourism culture in the Korean market to improve our tourism competitiveness.
Another point is to get the word out on the Korean tourism resources that Korea does have. This is a great country to be inspired by. Korea has a lot of energy to give, so when the people come here they can recharge their energy. We need to create the logic of why you should come to Korea rather than somewhere else.
KTO announced its plan to attract 10 million foreign visitors to Korea. However, we see a decline in Japanese tourists after the earthquake. Do you think it will be possible to reach that goal regardless of the disaster in Fukushima?
I think so. The point is that in the first five months until now, we had an overall growth of incoming tourism of about 3.5 percent over last year. So, we are actually getting more visitors than last year. But in order to get 10 million visitors we would have to have a growth rate of about 13.5 percent over last year. For the last two years we always had two-digit growth. This year, we were expecting the continuation of that trend. But, because of the earthquake in Japan and the subsequent nuclear fallout, a lot of trips were canceled. It didn’t stop the growth, but it dampened it. But I believe that in the second half of the year, actually, this trend can be reversed, and we will see very strong growth in the third and fourth quarters. We will have more Japanese coming here, since their domestic tourism industry is down. Instead of traveling inside of Japan, more Japanese will want to go outside their own borders. So I think we will see more benefit from that.
Each year, Chinese tourists visiting Korea are increasing. Last year, the KTO successfully attracted more Chinese tourists by using the Foreign Independent Tourist (FIT) marketing strategy. Can you tell me more about FIT marketing and certain points you focus on when making plans to attract Chinese tourists?
For the FIT marketing, we are working on different segments of the market very strongly. For example, to approach the “Gold Miss,” referring to young independent ladies in their twenties, thirties, and forties, we have a strong campaign going on called “Single.” Apparently, the word single also means freedom in Chinese. We also have an animated character called Xinger (星兒), played on the word single, meaning not married and freedom in Chinese. So, it also has a meaning of free travel. And then we have another segment showing strong growth in the wedding market. People come to Korea for their wedding photos and honeymoons. Because of the popularity of Korean dramas and K-pop, it’s a dream for young people in Asia to go to those film and TV locations and take their wedding photos. Since Korean fashion is also popular, many couples buy clothes, wedding gowns, suits, and even have their wedding here. Another segment is the retired and elderly people. Children of these people send their parents on trips, so we are focusing on this segment as well.
Recently, the KTO opened an office in Hanoi, Vietnam. What role will the Hanoi office play? What are the reasons for targeting the Vietnam market?
We already have 90,000 visitors coming from Vietnam every year. Vietnam is booming and the number of people who can af- ford to travel overseas are increasing very fast. So our office will target that segment of the market, in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Actually, the segment is quite strong already. Vietnam has a population of more than 85 million people, and much of the population is becoming wealthier. The economy is also growing much stronger. Since we already have a growing strong segment in Vietnam, we decided to open an office there.
Do you have plans to open additional offices in other countries?
We have plans to open offices in Indonesia this month, and in both Turkey and Manila next year. Also in the latter half of this year or early next year, we will be opening three more offices in China. They will be opened in the interior regions. Right now most of our offices are located around coastal areas such as in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Qingdao.
What efforts are you making to bolster the domestic tourism industry? In order to encourage more Koreans to travel inside Korea, what kinds of incentives are you offering to domestic tourists?
We have a campaign called “Korea Gusuk Gusuk (Nooks and Crannies of Korea)” and a very popular application for smart phones called “Gusuk Gusuk Daehanminkuk” in Korean, or “Visit Korea” in English. A million people have downloaded the application already. We also do a lot of articles with the press as well. Many newspapers have regular articles recommending places to go, and we work with many television programs that introduce domestic tourism spots.
Can you please tell us more about some of your projects to promote hanok (Korean traditional houses) and hanshik (Korean traditional food) to foreigners?
We have booklets introducing hanok and hanshik in many languages and websites. We also have a group called “Hanok Supporters,” which is a group of young bloggers visiting ha noks. They get the support to travel and stay in hanoks for a certain period of time and write about their experience. When we open our Jakarta office in June, we will promote hanshik as well. Also, when we go to trade fairs and international tourism exhibitions several times a year, we always introduce hanshik at those events. In an exhibition in Berlin, we had a ‘temple food tasting and making’ event, as well as a bibimbap (a Korean traditional dish that has rice mixed with vegetables, meat, an egg, and red pepper paste in a bowl) event.
Medical tourism is a new buzzword in the Korean tourism industry. To attract patients from abroad, the KTO initiated an overseas medical program, created an application called “MediApp Korea” and launched a social commerce website, “Medipon.” Can you please tell us more about the achievements of these projects? What other projects are currently underway to promote Korea’s medical tourism?
The application and the websites are one of our strategies, but we also do a lot of promotional events. We had one in Vietnam this year, one in Vladivostok, and also one in the Middle East. Every year we have several events overseas where we have Korean doctors from Korean hospitals come with us and give a presentation on Korean medical services. We invite the local press, medical service people, and travel agents to these presentations, which have turned out to be very effective.
I know it will be difficult for you to answer, but if asked what one tourist site to you would like to recommend for our readers for the coming summer holiday season, what would be your answer?
If you like the mountains, I would recommend Mount Jiri, Mount Sorak, Mount Odae, and the valleys in Muju Gucheondong. In the summer season, we have cool valleys with fresh water so it is very refreshing. If you like the beaches, on the west coast, I would recommend ones in Boryung, Byeonsan Peninsula, and the islands in Sinan County. In Sinan County, we have very nice resorts. The Eldorado Resort located in Jeungdo Island is one of them. On the east coast, we also have beautiful beaches, such as ones in Gangneung, Sokcho, Pohang, and Ulsan. The most famous ones are Gyeongpodae and Jeongdongjin. And the south also has beautiful beaches located in Hanryeo Waterway and Busan. In Busan there are urban beaches, mostly known as beach party places, such as Haeundae and Gwanganri.
Your first visit to Korea occurred in 1978 and you decided to become a naturalized Korean citizen in 1986. What attracted you to Korea most?
It was the contrast between the very ancient culture and the young culture within the country, which I thought had a very bright future and a creative spirit where I could expect a lot from the future.
In 2009, you became the first German-born naturalized Korean to lead a Korean public enterprise. Soon after you were appointed as the president of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), there were concerns questioning your abilities to lead the organization, due to the special characteristics of Korean public enterprises. What efforts were made to eliminate these concerns after you became the head of the KTO?
We did a lot of reorganizing and streamlining of the company. I established a new corporate philosophy, which is based on creativity, fairness, and open communication. In order to encourage the members of the company to come up with new ideas, we needed an environment where the member could be fairly rewarded and judged for their ideas. Also, we tried to reflect a vast majority of the people’s ideas to the center of the company. We have monthly meetings and lots of conversational meetings with different levels to promote open communication. We established a program that gives incentives to people that contribute more, but we also have a program to identify underachievers. Over a one year evaluation process, these underachievers go through a re-education process. They have only three chances to pass the process, so the people are more on their toes. In general, I think the organization became more vitalized, creative and active. The speed at which the projects are realized has improved dramatically. Last year, we received the highest marks in management evaluation from the Korean government. For the first time in the history of the KTO, we got an A.
As the leader of the KTO, what is your management philosophy?
Besides creativity, fairness and open communication, we have “SamGwanORim.” SamGwan refers to the three principles in customer relations, which are observation, interest and relationship. We need to observe what the customer wants and have interest in our consumers – not a fleeting interest but a deep one -- and we have to build a relationship with them. Also, tourism needs to have ORim, meaning the five elements based on the Five Elements Theory, which are vibration, attraction, harmony, resonance, and movement. In any type of product, event or marketing we need to have the SamGwanORim of tourism in it. That’s our philosophy.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Please come to Korea. Recharge your energy, refresh your spirit and remodel your body. Korea is a country that keeps reinventing itself all the time. Reinvent yourself in Korea.
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