[INTERVIEW] Be prepared for spike in hallyu tourists after pandemic: culture minister - The Korea Times
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[INTERVIEW] Be prepared for spike in hallyu tourists after pandemic: culture minister

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Culture Minister Hwang Hee / Courtesy of Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism
Culture Minister Hwang Hee / Courtesy of Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism

Culture Minister Hwang Hee vows to upgrade infrastructure to prepare for post-pandemic tourism boom

By Kwak Yeon-soo

Culture Minister Hwang Hee had firsthand experiences of the ever-growing influence of hallyu, or the Korean wave, during a recent trip to France. Some of them were so surreal that he couldn't believe his eyes.

Reflecting on his visit to a "Squid Game" pop-up store and meeting with K-pop fans at Kick ("K-pop is for cool kids") Cafe, a concept cafe in Paris for people who enjoy popular Korean music, he said that what he saw was "jaw-dropping."

"Although it was raining, visitors were waiting in a long queue outside the store that sells Squid Game merchandize. The line of people waiting to get in wrapped around the building at least twice!" the soft-spoken minister said with excitement during a recent interview with The Korea Times.

"It's not just the drama that's become a breakthrough hit. When a Korean-language class of 40 students opened at King Sejong Institute this year, more than 1,000 signed up for it. Moreover, most hallyu fans I met at the Kick Cafe seemed to understand my Korean, which surprised me."

Hwang said that Korean films and TV series have become increasingly visible to global audiences. Over the past two years, global demand for Korean content has increased by about 60-70 percent, he said.

He attributed the success of Korean content to active consumers who enjoy traveling abroad.

"Before the pandemic, about 30 million Koreans (60 percent of South Korea's entire population) traveled abroad annually. That's a lot compared to Japan, where only 7 million people travel overseas each year," he said. "Koreans tend to be (relatively more) open-minded toward accepting diversity and differences, and they adapt to the global standard very quickly. I think these characteristics were partly the reason why Korean content was able to win the hearts of global audiences."

This year proved that "Parasite" is not a one-off pop culture anomaly. Youn Yuh-jung became the first Korean actor to win an Academy Award for her role in "Minari," and "Squid Game" became Netflix's most-watched show of all time, marking the beginning of a new age of hallyu.

Korean content has been fast-tracked and binge-watched by viewers around the world. The other global streaming services, Apple TV+ and Disney+, have also started releasing new Korean titles on their platforms.

The minister said that he proposed for his French counterpart to consider the concept of a "Culture Olympics." He argued that if Korea, a new cultural powerhouse, joins forces with France, a center of rich and diverse cultural heritage, the Culture Olympics could have considerable social and economic benefits.

"Compared with the traditional Olympics that draws about 100,000-200,000 people in attendance, a Culture Olympics could attract one to two million spectators. As for the latter, there are over 100 items that can either be divided into competitive or noncompetitive forms. It also upholds the Olympic spirit of peace and harmony," he said.

Hwang intends to send the proposal to the culture ministers of 200 countries participating in the Olympics in January to gather support from like-minded leaders.

Culture Minister Hwang Hee, front right, joins K-pop fans at Kick Cafe, a concept cafe for K-pop in Paris, Nov. 14. Courtesy of Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism
Culture Minister Hwang Hee, front right, joins K-pop fans at Kick Cafe, a concept cafe for K-pop in Paris, Nov. 14. Courtesy of Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism

The minister's other bold dream is to expand inbound tourism by using cultural content and digitalization.

Before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Korea had approximately 17 million inbound visitors in 2019. However, the number of visitors to Korea fell to 2.52 million, down more than 85 percent.

Hwang predicts travel to surge after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everybody's travel plans, but I'm confident that there will be a spike in travel demand once the pandemic is over. There are millions of people who have grown curious about Korea after watching 'Squid Game' and the 'Feel the Rhythm of Korea' tourism videos," he said.

"To say that I'm worried that our tourism infrastructure may not be enough to meet the demand of travelers to Korea is not an overstatement."

Noting that the appeal of Korean culture is a big driver of tourism, Hwang unveiled a culture-led urban regeneration strategy. The culture ministry selected 18 cities across the country, including Mokpo, Gangneung and Suwon, that will get a makeover through government funds.

"Most of the countries that have succeeded in urban regeneration used arts and cultural activities for transformation. It's about reshaping a city's identity through the unified voice of residents. Overall, the key is to ensure that cities have their own unique appeal," Hwang said.

"For instance, Cheongju aims to establish itself as the country's comprehensive art preservation center," he added.

He mentioned as examples Austria's Bregenz, a city with a population of just 30,000 that makes enormous profits by hosting an opera festival, and Spain's Bilbao, the home of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, which helped transform a former industrial city into a unique destination for cultural tourism.

The culture ministry also vowed to achieve smart tourism with the help of technology and digitalization.

"Right now, Korea offers a travel guide that's primarily focused on the content. It's about where to go and what to see. Visitors just go to one spot and return to Seoul immediately because there are no adequate accommodations nearby. They don't dare dream of visiting another city because of the weak (local) transport infrastructure," he said.

Hwang stressed that the ministry will work closely with local governments to develop and link the tourism sector and services, including where to explore, eat and sleep. The culture ministry will also invest in immersive technologies, extended reality ― an umbrella term for virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) ― as part of the government's Digital New Deal initiative to revitalize the economy.

"We also aim to build a digital platform to promote the selected culture cities. I believe this plan will help cities achieve balanced regional development," he said.

Hwang shared his thoughts on renewing cultural exchanges between Korea and China on the occasion of the 2021-22 year of cultural exchange. Korean pop culture has been blocked in China since Korea deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in 2016. In December, the Korean film "Oh! My Gran" was released in mainland China, six years since the film, "Assassination," was released there.

"I think China will remove its restrictions on Korean pop culture when the Beijing Winter Olympics kick off. We have many events planned for next year, so I hope we can enhance our ties and secure peace on the Korean Peninsula," he said.


Kwak Yeon-soo yeons.kwak@koreatimes.co.kr


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