The Dark Side of Korean Tourism

No matter how you slice it and dice it, 40% is still not a good number for tourism. Especially when you compare it to China and Japan. As a tour guide in the Korean tourism industry, after reading this article and seeing the news segment that relates to it, I can say that it doesn’t just stop there. There are old-boy tour companies here that partner up with their buddy-buddy shopping centers and other places where tourists are told to spend money. They herd tourists around from one commission-based shopping to another. Sometimes you get a place added onto your itinerary to a so-called “museum”, only to find that it is a one-room exhibit explaining what kimchi is with the other parts of the warehouse as showrooms dedicated to selling overpriced products to locked-in tourist. This is not just Korea, but as I’ve traveled all throughout Asia, this seems to be standard practice. As a developed nation Korea should look beyond this now.

Adding in these mandatory commission-based stops allows many of the tourism companies to lower their tour fees to what’s called a “minus tour”. Minus tours are local tour companies “buying” tourists from foreign tour companies on the expectations that their souvenir-buying commissions will pay for the “minus” deficit they incur from purchase.  This is not tourism. This is probably closer to being a bookie managing a sports gambling book of bettings.  Tour groups are often tagged with the odds of buying “souvenirs” given their specific demographics. Some tour companies hire statisticians to often place value and hedge against less profitable tour groups. Overall the tours are run poorly, not being sensitive to the tourists needs as well as taking away from the chance of seeing other parts of Korea. 

This needs to stop. Korean is not a 3rd world market here.

Tourism needs to stop being monopolized by these entrenched thug-partnerships. It’s ruining our image. It’s one thing if these companies are bringing value with good products or services, but my experience with them have been terrible. Western tourists are appalled when they are taken here and affluent Asian tourists are now catching on.  Although this may have been the industry norm a long time ago, it is still being practiced by tour companies today, even in the face of a changing tourism environment where people are shrugging away from them. It’s one thing if you are upfront about it, but calling something “museum” or “monopoly showcase” is completely misleading. Nobody wants to go to them anymore. Customers have no idea that they are going to these places before they come to Korea because they are disguised as these tourist destinations.

The funniest thing I receive from client’s tour inquiries is them handing me an itinerary and asking me to replicate it and seeing how much less I can do it for. I look at their itinerary and its asking me to take them to these very shopping centers I’m talking about. Who in their right minds would want to go to these places if they knew what they really were? It’s crazy that these itineraries come standard now as they are flooding the inboxes of tour companies and tourists. I tell customers I refuse to take them to these places and because of that my tour fees are higher. Spend that money on me and not on these schemes please!

The tourism industry is changing everyday here. Sometimes better, sometimes worse, but overall the trajectory I believe is going in the right direction. There are some good companies out there that are recognizing these changes and changing their models to accommodate the growing need. Some of the companies are slow to change. Some of them are built on this very foundational system and would probably collapse if they don’t stick to using this model. They use other old school tourism resources at their disposal that might not be efficient in today’s industry.  It’s unfortunate because its coming at the cost of the foreigners coming here who had this fascination of Korea being this awesome place.  They go back to their home countries and talk about how they will never go back there again.  More often they’ve been saving money for years to take a vacation like this.

Tourism businesses need to be built from the basis of wanting to share the culture and people of the country. Built by people who are passionate about delivering such a service. Tourism businesses should not be built because that is where the money is. I left a high-paying banking job to start up I also have 12 years of corporate america work experience in the field of finance. If I was following the money, I’d still be there right now. But that’s not what life is about for me. I want to show the world Korea, a place I’m proud of. I place I love. A place where I think people can take a lot away from. I want to share this experience. I’m building this company on the basis of these cornerstones. Please support us at

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