Seoul is booming. Tourism numbers to the Republic of Korea are heading skyward and, as most of those visitors spend time in Seoul, the city is focusing efforts on creating dedicated inbound tourism strategies with an eye toward making Seoul a global model of intelligent tourism design.
Plans for ever taller mixed-use towers and ever larger urban pods of dining, entertainment, shopping, conferences and business are on the table. Seoul is now rivaling neighbors in Japan and Thailand for regional tourism dollars, and part of the strategy is making sure those revenues go into smart planning.
A record 13.5 million foreign visitors landed in the South Korean capital in 2016. The number dipped last year following a political skirmish between the US and China, which resulted in the Chinese government banning travel to the country (which accounts for around half of foreign tourism to Korea). In 2017 868,881 visitors from the United States landed in South Korea, accounting for 6.5 percent of the total number of inbound tourists.
At a recent UNTWO meeting there in September, the Seoul government announced ambitious goals for growth that would attract 23 million visitors to the city by 2023. “Tourism is a good thing for the city. We just have to make sure it is done right,” says Jae-sung Rhee, who was appointed president and CEO of the newly formed Seoul Tourism Organization last spring after 33 years in management at the Korean Tourism Organization.
The STO is now a fully government-run entity established to proactively respond to rapidly changing tourism and MICE markets and boost the city’s competitiveness. “The Seoul Tourism Organization plans to create more opportunities to share its projects, direction and status, and listen to the opinions of residents, visitors and tourism industry professionals,” Rhee explains. To that end, the STO launched a communications campaign to take it forward: “Value tourism, together with Seoul.”
Heart of Seoul
A city of more than 10 million people, Seoul is the fourth largest metropolitan economy in the world – larger than London and Paris. Traffic remains a problem but fortunately there’s a very usable and smart transportation system to ferry people back and forth across the Han River. Rides cost a little more than $1 for most routes in an easy-to-use kiosk system with options in English.
A key terminal, not only for trains but also transport to planes, can be found at the World Trade Center Seoul – a mega-sized, 4.1 million-square-foot, state of the art convention and exhibition center otherwise known as COEX. The complex sits atop a massive underground mall with restaurants, theaters, an aquarium and a central library, all surrounded by some 300 clothing, luggage and notion shops.
Around the COEX area are some 6,000 hotel rooms distributed through more than two dozen properties, including Intercontinental Seoul COEX, JW Marriott, Ramada, Aloft, Ibis, Novotel and myriad Korean-branded hospitality companies.
The InterContinental Seoul COEX, is steps away from the COEX world trade facility. With 654 rooms and 11 meeting rooms, it is across from and overlooks Bongeunsa Temple, an oasis of peace and beauty as an active Buddhist temple compound.
The 379-room Marriott reopened in August following an $80 million redo that upgraded rooms and enlarged the executive lounge to fit a burgeoning membership demand. Nearby, the Novotel opened in July with 321 rooms in a high rise that has the hotel lobby on the 23rd floor. The rooftop pool space comes with sublime city views and is easily available for events.
The Grand InterContinental Seoul Parnas is conveniently located next to the COEX Convention and Korea City Air Terminal and puts everything an international business traveler could need within easy walking distance. The property was renovated in 2014 and features 516 rooms, a grand ballroom that is the largest hotel meeting space in Korea, and 15 meeting rooms.
COEX also hosts desks for national and international carriers where passengers and their luggage can be checked in before a flight. From there it is easy to take a dedicated airport bus to Incheon International Airport about an hour north of the city.
Travelers can also catch a 45-minute express train ride on the AREX from Seoul Station to both Terminal One and Terminal Two at Incheon for around $7 per person. The city runs one, often two, trains an hour for this purpose. A regular commuter train is also available which takes around 53 minutes with ten stops along the way.
Another top spot for both corporate and leisure travelers is the 123-story Lotte Tower, the tallest tower in Seoul and fifth tallest in the world – sporting the world’s highest glass-bottomed observation deck in a building. In the middle is the Signiel Hotel, occupying the 76th through 101st floors. The Lotte-branded property offers 235 rooms including 42 suites. Rooms above the clouds easily deliver the most dramatic panoramas of Seoul from bed to bath.
Dining is an all-day affair in the VIP lounge or a masters experience at Bicena, a Michelin-starred restaurant at Signiel. A star-worthy breakfast buffet by French chef Yannick Alléno starts the day in the hotel’s spacious Stay café.
A visit to Lotte Tower can be complemented by the plethora of shopping and dining in the labyrinthine mall at ground level and below. However because shopping is neither the bargain nor the curiosity that it is in many other Asian cities, browsing might be more enjoyable in Seoul’s more artful districts, such as Insa-dong, or the designer malls to be found at Myeong-dong and Dongdaemun
Insa-dong brings several blocks of Korean traditional culture and crafts, including hanbok (traditional clothing), hanji (traditional paper), traditional teas, pottery and folk crafts. The area was once a place of study for artists, especially during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910). Galleries, clothing boutiques, even cat and meerkat cafes occupy a colorful confluence of streets rich in traditional architecture, culinary tastes and creative textiles.
Myeong-dong is another teeming shopping district that snakes through the city’s financial hub. Find department stores, restaurants, designer shops and boutiques – and the occasional political demonstration. The Myeong-dong Cathedral is an attraction here but the luxury shopping to be found behind street level kiosks is the biggest draw.
Dongdaemun is a top attraction for international visitors, if only for the curious presence of the Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP). Designed by world-renowned architect, Zaha Hadid, the seven-floor curvilinear aluminum sphere is void of straight lines but chock-a-block with pop-up boutiques, permanent artsy notion stores, clothing shops and cafes, and a night market that comes alive between 11 PM and 3 AM.
Among the initiatives being launched by Seoul Tourism, plans are afoot to offer virtual reality and augmented reality programs on apps and websites so visitors can preview must-see places in Seoul and plan their journeys prior to arriving. Part of the strategy is to encourage visitors to go to less-seen areas beyond the shopping hullabaloo and typical sightseeing mindset.
One of those places is the Oil Tank Culture Park in the Mapo District of the city. It is one of those truly quirky but worthy places with a past. What was for 41 years one of the most protected, top-secret spots in South Korea, is a series of massive oil storage tanks, each the size of an apartment building. It was where oil was kept and would have caused massive havoc if attacked. Now that oil is in some other equally secret spot, businesses are finding the park perfect for restaurants, meeting spaces, expo stages and museums.
Near the Dongdaemun Design Plaza is one of the country’s designated treasures: Heunginjimun Gate at the outer wall of Seoul Fortress, the largest of Seoul’s eight gates that surrounded the city during the Joseon Dynasty.
Much of what visitors come to Seoul to experience is the cultural immersion, and Samcheonggak, a traditional Korean mountain retreat in the heart of Seoul, provides an unusual event venue to bring this element to life. The property offers a serene hanok or traditional Korean house with outdoor gardens and views. Traditional tea ceremonies and performances, exhibitions, experience programs, and meals can all be enjoyed while overlooking expansive vistas of the city. (samcheonggak.or.kr).
Nearby, the Changdeokgung Palace that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, provides all the stories and up-close details of the lives of royalty during the Joseon Dynasty through a choice of tour options.
To experience more “Old Seoul” head to Donuimun Museum Village that showcases the transformation of Korean architectural style over the years. An engaging museum tells the tales with stunning exhibits within a living neighbor hood mostly inhabited by artist studios and cafes. (dmvillage.info)
No visit to Seoul is complete without a visit to Namsan Seoul Tower, a 900-foot pillar in the middle of the city. Active travelers might want to walk the peaceful, tree-lined 1.5-mile road to the top or take the cable car from the base. The tower, once a communications station, today is home to restaurants, cafes, shops and museums.
Here you can find a hanbok costume experience – dress up like a member of the Korean elite, circa 1850s, and walk around the observation tower or outside pavilions in full regalia, selfie-ready. The concept is played out in tourism areas all over Seoul – even the international airport. For meetings or groups, it’s an automatic ice-breaker, a costume party complemented by Korean court dances and traditional Silla music. (heegwan.com).
Transport to Seoul’s Incheon International Airport (ICH) from US gateways is best facilitated by United Airlines, Korean Airlines and Asiana Airlines. For more information on visiting Seoul contact the Seoul Tourism Organization at VisitSeoul.net