The Republic of Korea has become a tourist destination for Lao people who want to see and experience being in a megacity as they indulge in Korean pop culture.
By Lorie Ann Cascaro
SEOUL, Republic of Korea (MindaNews/20 November) — While many Koreans visited landlocked Laos to take a break and find “healing” from buzzing Seoul, nearly 2,000 Lao tourists came here from January to October this year to see for real what they saw in Korean dramas.
More Lao people have become attracted to Korea because of Hallyu or the Korean wave, which refers to the growing popularity of Korean culture, Ms Maniksahone Thammavongxay, head of the Culture and Tourism Unit of the ASEAN-Korea Centre, said while sipping her coffee at Starbucks in Intaewon district. It is also known as “Western Town” where many international restaurants and shopping centers are located.
Amid the increasing number of Korean tourist arrivals in Laos, Korean culture has been promoted in Laos through Thai channels showing Korean drama series and popular bands, also called K-pop, she says, citing the dance fever “Gangnam style”.
In the past most Lao visiting Korea were government officials and students, who availed of the Korean Government Scholarship, said Consul Sungwon Hong of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea to Laos.
As of October 2013, the Korean embassy in Laos had issued 1,789 tourist visas for Lao nationals. The figure increased more than six times from that of 2008 when only 237 tourist visas were issued. This trend, Mr Hong said “is expected to maintain for a while in the future according to the economic development of Laos.” Based on the embassy’s total visa issuance, 2,934 Lao people had supposedly visited Korea this year.
He attributed the increasing number of mutual visitors between the Republic of Korea and Laos to direct flights launched last year by Korean Jinair and Lao Airlines. He also cited Korean travel agencies for their “vigorous marketing promotion that must have added fuel to the trend”.
However, Laos’ Tourism Marketing Department has put more emphasis on promoting Laos to Koreans than encouraging more Lao tourists to visit Korea, according to its Director General, Mr Saly Phimphinith. Since last month, there have been three direct flights to Seoul every week, he said, adding that he had noticed an increasing number of passengers. He has yet to collate the data.
Among four tour operators in Vientiane that offer packages to Korea, the Santhiphap Travel State Enterprise has a growing number of customers flying to Seoul since the direct flights have been regularized. The company’s Managing Director, Mr Amnong Phomphiboun, told Vientiane Times the number of Lao tourists who booked tour packages in Seoul rose from 21 customers in September to 34 in October. The travel agency began organizing group tours in Korea in August this year with a total of 28 tourists.
The tour packages usually cover five or six days and costs from 6,800,000 kip to 8,500,000 kip (US$856 to US$1,000), Mr Amnong said.
Lao tourists visited mostly the big cities Seoul and Suwon, traditionally known as “The City of Filial Piety” and is the only city that has remained totally walled in the country. Most of them also visited Nami Island or Namisun in Chuncheon as it has become famous through the Korean drama “Winter Sonata” in 2002. It is an imaginary country called Naminara Republic and visitors have to pay for their imaginary passports that serve as admission fees.
But, after seeing the megacity, Seoul, and indulging in consumerism at Korea’s shopping districts, most Lao people might not want to visit again. They would not mind taking the trip only once in their lifetime, Ms Manisakhone said and smirked.
“They are not used to big cities and it is enough for them to see for themselves,” she explained. According to some of her friends who also visited, their tour guide took them to a shopping area and subtly forced them to buy cosmetic products.
Others plan to visit again after some years, like Ms Noy from Vientiane, who went to Korea with her family this year. Her favorite places were the public parks and Nami Island. She said she might return to Seoul when her children have grown up. But for now, she plans to visit other countries like Singapore.
For some reason, Lao people are now riding the Korean wave because, Mr Amnong said, they love watching Korean dramas. As the number of Lao tourist arrivals in Seoul will continue to rise in the coming months, more and more Koreans will fly to Vientiane to avail of “healing tours” or to volunteer in schools, hospitals and other organizations in Laos.
(Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is a fellow of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange programme in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.)