By Chloe Govan | October 2018 | 5 minute read
It may be one of Asia’s more unconventional stopover choices, but quirky and attraction-packed Korea is looking to take its place as a must-visit mainstream destination and to those in the know it is fast becoming an attractive alternative – or perhaps twin destination – to Japan.
“Korea is almost exactly halfway to Australia, so travelling via Seoul is a great way to break the long journey, for a few hours transfer, overnight, or even a dual destination trip”
PETER BARRON, UK SALES MANAGER, KOREAN AIR
Now for something different…
Evident in the comical yet cruel caricatures of a chubby-cheeked Kim Jong Un strolling hand in hand with U.S. president Donald Trump, as well as the sounds of Psy’s pop track ‘Gangnam Style’ blaring out of every nightclub’s loudspeakers, is that Korea has its very own, unique style.
As I navigate Seoul’s labyrinthine maze of neon-lit streets, the sounds of kitsch Korean pop is blasting out from the sidewalks, while the rich scent of savoury dumplings wafts out of cafes and forms a fragrant fog in the air. Then there’s the breathtaking stench of boiled silkworm larvae, a local delicacy that tastes decidedly better than it smells.
The past and the present converge as elderly, earnest salesmen touting Buddhist robes and statues walk side by side with modern-day cos-players in eccentric get-up. Young women parade the streets clad in Victorian ruffles and frills, imitating royalty from a bygone era.
A bedazzled bride struts by, her veil trailing wildly behind her. Hours earlier, she had taken part in a bizarre version of a traditional wedding ceremony where part of the pageantry involved the groom carrying a duck in his arms down the aisle. From a city that has a museum dedicated to Chicken Art, I wouldn’t expect anything less.
All of these experiences – and many more - are bookable with tour operators such as Bamboo Travel and Koon.
There are an impressive 13 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Korea – from the Changdeokgung Palace Complex in northern Seoul at the foot of Ungbong Peak of Mount Baegaksan, to Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes.
Seoul, its bustling capital, is less well known than Tokyo or Hong Kong, yet visitors who spend enough time there are invariably enthralled by a fast-paced city that is culturally rich and dynamic and has some of the best restaurants in Asia.
How to sell it
Savvy agents should be promoting Korea not just as a twin-break option but as a worthy stopover in its own right.
But the word seems to be getting out about Korea as it attracted over 13 million international visitors in 2017. That number looks set to increase this year and next on the back of the attention it attracted for hosting this year’s Winter Olympics.
For intrepid travellers en route elsewhere, Korea is a viable stopover choice, halfway to Australia, but Kuoni Product Manager Paul Ingram suggests matching Korea with Japan or China, commenting: “You can combine our Highlights of South Korea itinerary with our Essential China or Essential Japan itineraries or even do both to create an epic 26-night ultimate East Asia itinerary.”
He adds: “Alternatively, suggest ‘untouched’ South Korea on a standalone visit… while less expensive than neighbouring Japan, it is equally rewarding and culturally diverse.”
Korea even has its own Cherry Blossom spectacular each spring and an explosion of fall colours. The blaze of crimson, red and yellow leaves may remind of New England but the classic pagodas and distinctive Eastern architecture will leave your clients in no doubt that they are unmistakably in Asia.
As Luke Stapylton-Smith, Asia Specialist at Bamboo Travel, notes: Korea is “definitely becoming Asia’s buzz destination”.
Independent travel in Korea is easy, with sophisticated and on-time rail and subway networks, intercity buses, flights and ferries to Jeju island and even Japan.
Seoul searching: This is a city of extremes: traditional, edgy and quirky. Besides all-night partying, there are pet cafes with live cats, dogs and even sheep, and bizarre attractions such as the Plastic Surgery Museum. Gwanghwamun – Korea’s answer to Paris – is an example of Seoul’s ‘retro sophistication’.
Gangnam-style: Visitors can discover the Seoul district that inspired the name of Psy’s hit song – one of the most downloaded videos of all time. The wealthiest neighbourhood in town, it’s a place to act like an “oppa” and enjoy upscale food, restaurants and stores. Opulence fetishists will appreciate the upscale Pierre Gagnaire, a Seoul restaurant at the Lotte Hotel, which has crystal chandeliers costing over $50,000 each.
Temple nights: Immerse yourself in 1,700 years of Eastern history and learn all about the harsh regime of a Buddhist monk by bedding down in an authentic monastery. Visit The DMZ: Explore labyrinthine underground tunnels and secret passageways created by the North to try to cross the borderline illicitly. One million soldiers guard the border day and night. View the Freedom Bridge, once crossed by thousands of prisoners of war on their road to liberation.
Museum without walls: In Gyeongju lies over 1300sq km of ancient history, from Buddhist temples to tombs. Plus, visit the World Heritage Site of Seokguram Grotto, where a 3.5m tall Buddha figurine sits inside a cave. Visit Busan: Explore the coastal city of Busan and its clifftop temples, before luxuriating at its famous hot springs of Hurschimchung.
What the experts say
”We have seen an increase in enquiries from new operators hoping to add Korea to their programmes. Those such as Cox and Kings, Explore and Kuonii offer the ‘Golden Triangle’ of Seoul, (including the DMZ), the UNESCO World Heritage areas around Gyeongju and Korea’s second city Busan, with some also offering twin-centres with Japan.
“Korea is also included on many Far East cruise itineraries. We have a new and updated website at GoKorea.co.uk. and next year hope to run a mega-fam for agents nominated by tour operators selling Korea.”
MICHAEL MICHAEL, KOREA TOURISM ORGANISATION, LONDON
Where to book it
Bamboo Travel’s 15-day Deeper into the Land of Morning Calm tour offers an in-depth and up-close-and-personal journey. It includes temple stays and home stays in traditional hanok housing. Prices start at £5,425pp, with departures from March to November.