If you looked like a tourist while strolling along the streets of Myeong-dong, Seoul’s signature shopping mecca, in 2019, you were likely to have been approached by a beauty store staff member saying “Ni hao” or “Konnichiwa” to tout brightening creams or sheet masks.
In 2023, Myeong-dong vendors have a few more greetings in their glossaries — “Xin Chao,” “Halo” and “Sawatdee Khrap/Khun Kha” for Vietnamese, Indonesian and Thai tourists, respectively — as tourists from Southeast Asian countries pour into Korea.
The number of tourists from these nations surpassed that of tourists from Korea’s traditional foreign visitors, China and Japan, for the first time in 2021.
“English was a must, and Chinese or Japanese were electives before Covid,” said Kim Sun-ah, a 38-year-old who works in one of the cosmetics stores in Myeong-dong. “Now, store managers are looking for employees who can speak one of the Southeast Asian languages along with English.”
Some managers take language classes to learn the tongues and many employ immigrants from those countries, said Kim.
Tourists from China and Japan once crowded the streets of the tourist district in central Seoul, but the number of travelers from the East Asian neighbors crashed during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2019, 4.89 million Chinese tourists flocked to Korea according to the Korea Culture & Tourism Institute’s (KCTI) online data website Tourism Knowledge & Information System.
The number plunged by 90.8 percent to 451,000 in 2020 following Covid-19 lockdowns and tumbled 96.7 percent from that to 15,000 in 2021. Around 66,000 Chinese nationals came to Korea in 2022.
The number of tourists from six Southeast Asian countries — Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia — did fall during the same period, but is bouncing back at a compelling pace.
Nearly 2 million tourists visited Korea from these countries in 2019, but only 60,000 came in 2021. One year later, the number increased tenfold to more than 600,000, and in the first quarter of this year alone,
Chinese nationals accounted for 28 percent of all tourists in 2019, but only 2 percent in 2022. The percentage of tourists from Southeast Asian countries rose from 11 percent to 19 percent during the same period.
The number of Southeast Asian tourists exceeded that of Chinese tourists for the first time in 2021 since the KCTI began compiling data in 2005.
China banned group tours to Korea in 2017 as part of its retaliation against Seoul’s deployment of the terminal high altitude air defense system. The Chinese have still remained as a major tourist supplier for Korea, traveling to the country in smaller parties, but the Chinese government’s ban on overseas travel itself in 2020 slashed tourist numbers even further.
“Chinese tour groups were the mainstream visitors in the past, but we see a lot of Southeast Asian travelers who come in family groups or with a couple of friends,” said an employee of the Myeong-dong Tourist Information Center, dressed in a red t-shirt and a red hat.
278,000 came to Korea.
Of the 500,000 tourists who visited the tourist information centers operated by the Seoul Tourism Organization in Myeong-dong, Seoul Station and Yongsan Station last year, 22.7 percent were from Malaysia or Indonesia. More than 40 percent were from English-speaking countries, while only 7 percent were from China.
The change in the tourists’ origins has brought about changes in tastes as well.
“Many restaurants and food stalls are putting up halal stickers or vegan signs on their menus,” the tourist information guide said. “They’re more of a method for store owners to convey that their food doesn’t contain pork or meat products rather than being actually halal-certified, since the standard and procedure for receiving a halal certification are quite burdensome for small business owners.”
Of the 666.2 million inhabitants of Asean states, more than 40 percent were Muslim as of 2021, according to Statista. Muslims made up 87.2 percent of Indonesia’s nationals and 61.3 percent of Malaysia’s.
The return of tourists, in particular those from Southeast Asia, is fueling energy back into Myeong-dong’s businesses in general.
The vacancy rate of small-size stores in Myeong-dong’s alleys was zero until the second quarter of 2020, according to Korea Real Estate Board statistics. It took a major hit during the pandemic and soared to as high as 50.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2021. But as tourists returned under easing Covid regulations, the vacancy rate halved to 21.5 percent in the fourth quarter of last year.
Myeong-dong’s shopping district still has noticeable vacancies, ranking sixth in the nation and markedly higher than other tourist districts in Seoul — Itaewon (11.4 percent) and Hongdae (8.4 percent) — as of first quarter this year. It had topped the list for four consecutive quarters since the fourth quarter of 2020.
“We remember seeing many stores empty with a ‘For Rent’ sign on the glass walls when we came here during the Christmas season in 2020,” Lee Yoo-
The two have visited Myeong-dong a couple of times since then, but it wasn’t until late last year they recalled seeing food stalls lined up along the trademark street vendor area that stretches between Lotte Department Store’s Myeong-dong branch and Myeongdong Theater.
“Seeing the food stalls, bumping into tourists and hearing foreign languages make us think Myeong-dong has regained its vigor.”
The hike in the floating population also means higher sales토토사이트, another boost for Myeong-dong’s revival.
The number of passengers who either got off or boarded the subway at Myeong-dong Station in April stood at 1.95 million, up 78 percent on year, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government. The tally was at 75 percent of the pre-Covid level of 2.59 million in April 2019.
jin and Lee Jae-hee, a couple both aged 29, said.
Five branches of health and beauty retailer CJ Olive Young in Myeong-dong logged a record jump in sales by foreign customers in March, skyrocketing 29 times on year between March 1 and 17. The figure was double that of 2019. Of the total sales at Olive Young’s Myeong-dong branches reported during the cited period, 73 percent were by foreigners, who accounted for only 12 percent a year ago.
Department stores raked in more sales, too.
Sales from foreign customers at Lotte Department Store’s Myeong-dong branch rose 780 percent on year between January and March. Shinsegae Department Store’s main branch just southwest of Myeong-dong saw their sales from foreign customers grow by 365.3 percent.
Hyundai Department Store’s flagship store The Hyundai Seoul in Yeouido, western Seoul, saw foreign customer sales surge 872.6 percent and Lotte Department Store’s Jamsil branch saw its foreign sales climbed by 430 percent. Jamsil is a neighborhood in Songpa District, southern Seoul, rising as a new tourist destination in Korea. It is home to the Lotte World theme park and landmark Lotte World Tower.
Southeast Asian tourists were on par with Chinese tourists in terms of their buying power. Though they traveled in smaller groups than the Chinese who tend to travel as part of group tours, the evident increase in their number seems to have been enough to make up for the drop in the Chinese tourist count.
Tourists from the six Southeast Asian countries spent $3,978 per person on average during their stays in Korea in 2021, while Chinese tourists spent $4,170, according to the International Visitor Survey report published by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in July last year.
In 2019, Southeast Asian tourists on average spent $1,071 per person, while Chinese tourists spent $1,632.
Experts say the spread of K-pop triggered the diversification of tourists in Korea.
“Groups like BTS and Blackpink are creators of the content that represents Korea and are content themselves and ambassadors,” said Park Eun-jung, an analyst at Hana Securities. “Stories about Korea are also being consumed across the world, including ‘Parasite’ (2019) and ‘Squid Game’ (2021).”
The heightened popularity of Korean culture ultimately spurs an interest in Korea and boosts potential tourism demand, setting off another round of content and commodity exports, Park added.
“Strict Covid prevention measures and the sharp drop in cross-border travel blocked the expanded interest in Korea from translating directly into tourism, but tourism demand will increase regardless of the seasonal trend starting this year.”