FOR many South Koreans, the Philippines is like their second home. With the number of English-language schools catering to South Korean students opening in key cities, it isn’t surprising to see a number of Koreatowns mushrooming around the country.
And these communities have everything South Koreans and Filipinos who love all things Korean can look for: groceries, restaurants and even hostels catering to an exclusive clientele. In places that are known for their beaches, such as Cebu and Boracay, there are even dive shops that cater exclusively to South Korean nationals.
In fact, the Philippines is now a top destination for South Korean newlyweds. As I chatted with Sangyong Zhu, director of the Manila office of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), he mentioned that Cebu and Boracay have eclipsed Jeju Island as the most popular honeymoon destination for his countrymen.
“It’s just a three-and-a-half-hour flight from [South] Korea,” Zhu explained.
The Philippines has proven to be an attractive destination for South Koreans because of the weather, the people and the food.
“In winter, many [South] Koreans cannot go outside because it’s too chilly to play golf,” the KTO Manila director said. “But here, they can play as much golf as they want during the winter months.”
Truth is, the number of South Koreans who travel to the Philippines has been steady in the past years. In 2013 a total of 1,165,789 South Korean nationals went here, a 13.06-percent rise from the figure in 2012. Although the number has dipped down to 1,130,000 in 2014—the figure is still tentative pending a final count of visitors who came in during the Christmas holidays—it is still quite an impressive figure.
A boom market
On the other hand, the KTO is looking favorably at the Philippines as a boom market considering that the number of Filipinos who have been to their country has gradually risen through the years. In fact, the Philippines is No. 7 among the top countries who have been visiting South Korea, just behind China, Japan, the United States, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand. In 2014 the number of Filipinos who traveled to South Korea totaled 434,951. Zhu said this number is expected to go up to 450,000 by 2015.
Because of this impressive increase in the number of Filipino tourists coming to South Korea, the KTO headquarters in Seoul decided to open an office in Makati City three years ago. Previously, affairs related to Filipino tourists were handled in the KTO office in Kuala Lumpur.
The global effect of ‘Hallyu’
Much of South Korea’s popularity among foreign tourists, including Filipinos, is the global Hallyu phenomenon. For those in the know, Hallyu refers to the so-called Korean fever that has been sweeping all over the world. For the past decade or so, Korean drama and pop music (K-pop) has made inroads into televisions around the world, providing viewers with a view of South Korean life and culture and the countryside.
Zhu said the KTO is surprised at how pervasive South Korean entertainment has been. Many of the tourists who come to Seoul specifically ask to be taken to the different locations that were featured in South Korean dramas.
And Filipino travelers are no exception. The KTO Manila director said many Filipinos who travel to his country make their own plans, identifying specific places they want to see and coordinating the schedule with their travel agents. Seoul with its many locales is a popular stop, but places such as Nami Island and Mount Seorak, which were heavily featured in the South Korean drama show Winter Sonata, have also been identified as must-see destinations. Lately, Petite Frances, a theme park patterned after a French countryside village, has also attracted much attention following the monster success of the show My Love from the Stars.
A popular vacation place
He said South Korea is quite popular among Filipino travelers during the holidays, from April to May during school vacations, October during the autumn, and in December during the Christmas holiday.
Apart from the popularity of Korean dramas and K-pop, South Korea is also popular because of its cultural attractions and amusement parks, and the many shopping districts.
Zhu said Filipino tourists are quite unique from other travelers because they often move in groups, usually in families.
“When they go to [South] Korea, they take with them the whole family, with the grandparents and grandchildren. I find that very attractive about Filipino travelers,” he said.
The fact that they do their homework before arriving in Seoul is also a plus.
“They are very smart travelers, very trendy and very mild mannered,” he added.
No problem with English
It is also easier to go around Seoul nowadays, the KTO Manila director explained. KTO now has a smartphone app, Visit Korea, which would serve as guide to non-Korean speaking tourists as they go around major cities in South Korea. There is also a nationwide English-speaking toll-free call center to handle inquiries from travelers, as well as more than a 1,000 tourist-information kiosks.
“In the big cities, you will not have much problem looking for people who can speak English,” he said. “It is when you go to the countryside when that might become a problem. But we are now working on that, as more tourists are attracted to [South] Korea’s natural wonders, especially its mountains.”
While tourists need a visa to go to South Korea, KTO Manila has an existing tie-up with Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) that waives the requirement for financial documents for BPI account holders in place of a certification from the bank. In fact, they can get their visa in just three days.
Visa-free Jeju Island
On the other hand, Jeju Island, which is the southernmost island of South Korea, is visa-free to all tourists. Travelers from the Philippines can go to Jeju via flights emanating from Hong Kong, Shanghai or specially chartered flights.
KTO Manila is now pushing Seoul as a destination for medical tourism. Zhu said that a number of clinics offering traditional Korean medicine, skincare and wellness could be accessed through available packages.
“A number of Japanese nationals now go to Seoul for treatments because of advances in medicine in our country. Japan might be advanced in terms of medicine, but costs are much lower in [South] Korea,” he explained.
More packages being developed
In the forthcoming PTAA Travel Tour Expo, a number of South Korean clinics will be participating, the first step in the promotion of Korean medical tourism.
Zhu said that KTO is now developing pilgrimage tours, which it believes would be popular to many Filipinos.
“Buddhism was South Korea’s religion many years ago, but now, most Koreans and Christians, with a majority of them Catholics,” he explained.
These tours will expose tourists to [South] Korea’s religious martyrs, various holy sites and churches throughout the country.
Zhu said he has been in the Philippines for the past three years now, and he has come to enjoy the way Filipinos celebrate the holidays. Like Catholics in South Korea, they also observe Easter and Christmas.
“We have the family parties that you have here, but your celebrations are so much more than what we do,” he said.
He has also had a chance to travel around popular destinations in the country. In fact, he finds Tagaytay with its vista of Taal Volcano to be a unique one.
Considering that South Korea promotes heavily its mountains and lakes as destination, the KTO Manila director’s statement is surprising.
“There’s nothing like it in [South] Korea, a volcano in the middle of the lake. I never get tired of going there and just looking at it. In fact, when I have guests from [South] Korea here, I take them there, too, and they also love the view.”