Dai Bin | China-ROK Tourism Cooperation in Thirty Years, A Long-Awaited Reunion in the Blooming Season of Hibiscus

2022-11-01 16:02:00       Size:[L  M  S]

China-ROK Tourism Cooperation in Thirty Years,
A Long-Awaited Reunion in the Blooming Season of Hibiscus

— Keynote Speech at the Sixth China-ROK Development and Cooperation Forum of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road

(November 1, 2022)

Dai Bin, President of China Tourism Academy

I. Over the past 30 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, China and the ROK have steadily expanded tourism exchanges and become each other’s most important tourist source and destination

China and the ROK are close neighbors separated only by a strip of water, yet for a long time, the two countries have been total strangers. Before the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992, except for limited diplomatic and economic exchanges, the people of the two countries seldom had the opportunity to set foot on each other's soil, and they learned about each other mostly from textbooks and world maps, The Tale of Chunhyang and The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, as well as Arirang and Jasmine Flower. After the establishment of diplomatic relations, a large number of Korean tourists came to China, totaling 340,000 in 1994 alone. Later, with the rise of China’s outbound tourism market, the ROK soon became the most popular destination country for Chinese tourists. In 1999, the number of Chinese tourists visiting the ROK reached 310,400. In the past two decades, tourism exchanges between China and the ROK entered the fast track. In 2019, 4,346,600 Korean tourists came to China, with a compound annual growth rate of 10.73%; in the same year, 6,485,800 Chinese tourists visited the ROK, with a compound annual growth rate of 17.64%.

Tourism generates considerable shopping, accommodation, dining and entertainment revenues for the two countries, and contributes significantly to economic growth and employment. It is also an effective means to enhance people-to-people exchanges and mutual understanding. Korean cosmetics, skin care products, fashion, jewelry, food and beauty services are a must for Chinese tourists. Many young people choose to stay at Lotte hotels for their food and beauty services and shopping malls. When they return to China, they often carry over-weighted suitcases. Of course, the ROK is not only a shopping paradise, but also home to a rich variety of historical and cultural heritages. Tongdosa, Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gyeongnam Yangsan, Jeonju Hanok Village and Suwon Hwaseong have all left a deep impression on visitors. The CTA Survey on the Satisfaction of Chinese Outbound Tourists (2013-2020) shows that the satisfaction level of Chinese citizens traveling to the ROK has been improving year by year, crossing the 80-point mark of high tourist satisfaction in 2019.

Jeju, which has been offering 30-day visa-free stay for Chinese citizens since 2002, is a top destination for Chinese vacation tourists because of its close distance, frequent flights, excellent hospitality facilities, and inexpensive prices. Jeju Olle, Jusangjeolli Cliff, Teddy Bear Museum, Haenyeo Museum, Maison Glad Hotel, and gourmet food such as seafood and beef can be seen in photos and videos shared by tourists on major social media platforms. Data from Ledao Travel, which specializes in organizing Korean tours for Chinese citizens, shows that Jeju is also a destination that Chinese tourists are willing to make return visits. Leisure programs such as bicycle riding, hiking, trekking, shopping, and gourmet food, as well as immersive experiences such as Korean costume stock photos, one-hour cooking course for nori rice wraps, spicy fried rice cakes and other Korean food, seafood auction at Hanlim port,  transparent kayaking at Hamdeok beach, and trekking on pipa island, have together shaped Jeju’s image as a leisure and consumer destination. Beijing tourists come to Jeju for a weekend vacation as if they are just traveling to Tianjin on a high-speed train, which is a trip they can take anytime of the day.

II. Tourism development cannot be separated from the mutual political trust, economic and trade interactions and cultural exchanges between China and the ROK

Tourism development benefits from mutual political trust. The relationship between the two countries was elevated from “friendly relationship” when diplomatic relations were established in 1992, to “partnership” in 1998, and to “comprehensive partnership” in 2003. In 2008, the relationship was upgraded to a “strategic” partnership which allowed for the discussion on a wide range of issues, and in 2013, a “substantive” strategic partnership was established. The political trust between the two countries has been steadily increasing over the past 30 years of diplomatic relations, and the messages released by the exchange of high-level visits and the voices conveyed by authoritative media have always been consistent and pragmatic. Both the tourism industry and educational research institutions and professional think tanks should attach more importance to the role played by heads of state, heads of government, senior government officials and authoritative media in international tourism exchanges, especially for Northeast and East Asian countries. Tourism communication and marketing is now heavily influenced by Europe and the United States. For example, people are paying too much attention to celebrities or KOLs on the Internet and social media platforms, while ignoring, either on purpose or sub-consciously, the impact of political will and government power on tourism.

Tourism development benefits from economic and trade interactions. Two-way trade between China and the ROK increased from about US$5 billion in 1992 to $100 billion in 2005, $200 billion in 2011, and $300 billion in 2021. The signing of the China-ROK Free Trade Agreement (FTA) in 2005 is a milestone in the history of economic and trade relations between the two countries, and the continuous improvement of the direct trading mechanism between the RMB and the KRW has enabled both countries to better withstand international financial risks and reduced the costs of transaction and currency exchange for enterprises. Today, China has become the largest trading partner of the ROK, while the ROK will soon overtake Japan as China’s second largest trading partner. Over the past 30 years since the establishment of diplomatic relations, leading Korean companies such as Samsung, SK, LG and Hyundai have made large-scale and high-quality investments in China in the fields of electronic information, petrochemicals and automobile manufacturing. For example, Samsung has built its memory production line in Xi’an and LG has placed its advanced OLCD panel production line in Shenzhen. From January to July this year, the ROK’s investment in China increased by 44.5%, the fastest among all major country investors. While driving economic growth, technological progress and market expansion in both countries, China-ROK cooperation has also generated growing consumer demand for business travel and MICE tourism.

Tourism development benefits from cultural exchanges. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, China has established the Chinese Cultural Center in Seoul, and the ROK has established the Korean Cultural Center in Beijing and Shanghai, which, together with the cultural sections of the embassies and consulates and the tourism offices, form a new pattern of cultural diplomacy with diverse features. Through cultural programs such as the Confucius Institute and “Happy Chinese New Year”, more Koreans have been able to learn about traditional Chinese culture. It is worth noting that cultural enterprises such as SM, YG and JYP, movie stars such as Kim Hee-sun and Jeon Ji-hyun, as well as singers and artists such as PSY, EXO, TWICE, NCT and IVE, and variety shows such as We Got Married have a wide influence among Chinese youth. New-generation Chinese singers and actors such as Song Qian, Cheng Xiao and Greg Hsu are also well-known among young Koreans. Cultural exchanges, especially popular culture for Gen-Z, have increased the affinity between the two peoples and enriched the tourism image and local experience of both countries. The filming locations of The Classic, My Sassy Girl, Dae Jang-geum and We Got Married are all must-visit spots for Chinese tourists.

III. China-ROK tourism exchanges and cooperation need more institutional innovation, and the sustainable development of tourism requires the coordinated actions of the government, industry and academia

Continuously building the popular foundation of China-ROK tourism exchanges. Good neighbors must visit each other often. The key to a sound state-to-state relationship lies in the amity between their peoples; and the amity between peoples is strengthened through frequent mutual visits. To this end, we need to release more goodwill through various channels to further enhance the affinity between our peoples, especially the youth. We can’t choose our neighbors, and we need to share our beautiful life with each other. Data of the famous online travel agent Qunar shows that even during the traditionally non-peak seasons for outbound travel, like March 15 to May 31 and November 15 to January 15, which happen to be the cherry blossom season and skiing season in the ROK, the number of Chinese outbound tourists still went up by over 30% for three consecutive years before the pandemic. Among them, young people aged 24 to 35 are the main customer group. It is hoped that the cultural, sports and tourism departments of the two countries could organize more cultural programs such as concerts, intangible cultural heritage demonstrations, pop concerts and variety shows, so that our young people will become good friends who know and like each other. Despite the challenges, I hope our tourism promotion agencies, resource providers and travel agents will keep their link and work in unison at all times. We should advance the Asia Tourism Promotion Program, and focus on the development of study tours, cultural heritage tourism, food tourism, eco-tourism and rural tourism to tap into the market potential of individual, self-guided and young tourists. When tourists experience the local destinations not only in hotels, resorts, theme parks and duty-free stores, but also in every bit of urban and rural life, we will have an opportunity to see each other’s past, present and future. Promoting mutual understanding, trust and goodwill between peoples should be a more important goal for tourism development than consumption, investment and employment.

Fostering more enabling institutional arrangements for promoting tourism cooperation between China and the ROK. Under the framework of multilateral cooperation mechanisms such as APEC, RCEP, and the China-Japan-ROK Tourism Ministers’ Meeting, as well as bilateral cooperation such as the second round of the China-ROK FTA, greater efforts are needed to push China-ROK tourism cooperation to a higher level. We need to make visa and customs clearance policies more convenient, and build a more friendly language environment and smart tourism interface. We need to jointly promote the East Asian Cultural Capital, develop multi-destination tourism routes, and jointly build international tourism destinations in Northeast Asia. We need to leverage the comparative advantages of our seaside cities and islands in terms of tourist sources, ports and other infrastructure, strengthen cooperation in maritime, customs and legal affairs and the training of professional personnel, and turn the Yellow Sea, East Sea and Sea of Japan into international cruise tourism, island tourism and marine tourism destinations. Heritage tourism and eco-tourism are also new areas of cooperation between the two countries. China has 18 Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems recognized by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), ranking first in the world, and 138 important agricultural cultural heritages in China recognized by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. To strike a balance between conservation and development through scientific planning, and provide professional guidance to local governments and grassroots communities, we could draw on the experience of foreign countries, including that of the ROK. For example, Boseong County in the ROK has established a fishing village cooperative to develop and promote traditional fishing knowledge, showcase the agricultural cultural heritage in various exhibitions and expositions, and promote it as a tourist destination to international and domestic tourism markets.

Boosting cooperation between tourism investors and market players. Tourism cooperation requires institutional innovations at the central government level, such as meetings, consensus building, and mutual establishment of offices. It also requires pragmatic cooperation among local governments in destination promotion, interactions in education, research, media, culture, art and other fields, and more importantly, in-depth cooperation among tourism investment institutions, air passenger transport, cruise lines, travel services, hotel management, travel retailers and other market players in the construction of tourist attractions and resorts, marketing of tourism cities and leisure districts, organization of night tourism programs and development of gourmet tourism products. In recent years, the focus of cooperation between the Chinese and Korean tourism industries has gradually shifted from products and market to equity investment. On October 18, 2021, China Haichang Ocean Park Holdings Ltd. and MBK Partners, a leading private equity fund in Asia, agreed on a package totaling over RMB 6.5 billion, including strategic cooperation, shareholder agreement, equity sales and purchases, brand licensing and transition services. China-ROK tourism cooperation requires the participation of not just large corporations, but also MSMEs and people with professional knowledge. Tens of thousands of market players, including travel agencies, online travel agents, B&Bs, as well as shared accommodation, travel retail, leisure and entertainment service providers, all need to build stronger resilience against risks through digital transformation. Providing professional training, field visits and business match-up for tourism MSMEs in both countries under  bilateral and multilateral cooperation frameworks such as the China-ROK FTA, China-Japan-ROK Tourism Ministers’ Meeting and APEC is a practical option of future cooperation.

It is my sincere wish to visit the ROK once again during the blooming season of hibiscus in the coming year to take a stroll along the Jeju Olle with old and new friends in Jeju, feel the sea breeze on Jusangjeolli Cliff, and discuss our common future.

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