In fifty years since the Korean War, South Korea was catapulted from being one of the poorest countries on the planet, on a par with Ethiopia and Bangladesh, to being one of the OECD countries with a GDP that hovers between 11th and 13th in the world, depending on exchange rates. Now Mr Charm Lee, appointed president of the Korea Tourism Organisation in August, wants to reinvent Korea yet again with a ‘tourism venture boom’.
Jennifer Barclay, author of MEETING MR KIM: OR HOW I WENT TO KOREA AND LEARNED TO LOVE KIMCHI, met Mr Lee in Seoul a month after he took up the post, and found him ready to shake up the country with fresh ideas.
I am ushered into a large sitting room. ‘Mr Lee will be with you soon. He is on his way from the Blue House.’ When I arranged to meet the new president of the Korean Tourism Organization in Seoul, somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that he might be coming direct from an audience with the President of the Republic himself.
It had also escaped me, I realise as he arrives, that Mr Charm Lee was not in fact of Korean parentage but German by birth, a naturalised Korea who’d adopted a Korean name; and the first foreigner to hold a senior government post in Korea. (Two months later, addressing the media in London, he will quip ‘A lot of people don’t expect me to look like this. It just shows how far ahead Korean plastic surgery is.’)
As someone who originally came to Korea for a six-month academic position and ended up staying (31 years so far), he’s a good advertisement for the country. He is tall, affable, and fired up with enthusiasm. It’s a tough job that he’s accepted, as Korea is still ‘a very well kept secret for tourism’. Lee is an interesting man with clever ideas, who has charged himself with creating a tourism culture in a hard-working country where holidays can be viewed with suspicion.
‘Taking holidays has previously been seen as a frivolous activity. Koreans spend one or two days on a crowded beach, getting stressed. Even when travelling abroad, they visit seven countries in five days. For a tourism infrastructure to be built, Koreans themselves need to learn how to relax and enjoy holidays, to see it not as stealing time away from work, but a productive activity that helps you become more creative.’
Seeing travel not as a luxury but a necessity? All for it. I’m in.
In the past, says Lee, Koreans have seen tourism as something that detracts from real business. No other country would have cancelled festivals and school trips from Japan during the autumn, the busiest season for tourism, because of swine flu alerts. Lee spoke out against his own government’s directives on this: nobody said let’s close down factories and schools. There needs to be more awareness of tourism as a serious industry that feeds so many smaller businesses such as taxis and restaurants. But Korean people can be very quick to change if they want to.
‘Koreans are successful at creating change,’ he says. In the 60s, it was the ‘new village’ movement where the people pulled together to improve the country’s infrastructure. Then there was the IT revolution. ‘Twenty-thirty years ago there was nothing. It happened with massive support from the economy and the government, a nationwide effort.’ Today South Korea is one of the most connected and technologically advance places on the planet. In fifty years since the Korean War, South Korea was catapulted from being one of the poorest countries on the planet, on a par with Ethiopia and Bangladesh, to being one of the OECD countries with a GDP that hovers between 11th and 13th in the world, depending on exchange rates. Lee sees this as another opportunity to create wealth and jobs.
‘Let’s create a tourism venture boom in Korea.’
Mr Lee might be just the man to start such a tourism revolution. The choice of a non-Korean is a smart move, because he understands what will attract other outsiders to the country in ways a Korean might not. He’s also something of a television celebrity, both charismatic and visionary. A decade ago, he came up with a programme called ‘Looking for Venture Capital’ in which entrepreneurs competed for investment – a forerunner of Dragons’ Den, surely? Now he’s advocating a fund for people to start up tourism businesses.
As well as the sophisticated, modern city culture of Seoul, he wants to focus on history, culture and nature. But the big question ‘why should you come to Korea?’ has not had a very clear answer until now. For Asians, Korea is already a popular destination. But why should Europeans get on a plane and travel halfway around the world to visit Korea?
‘To recharge your energy,’ continues Lee. ‘Korea has more energy than anywhere. Korea reinvents itself every six months. It changes so rapidly, it’s breathtaking. Come here and reinvent yourself. Experience something new.’
Lee reinvented himself, you could say, when he became Korean 23 years ago, the first German to become a Korean citizen (he was the 325th naturalised Korean, most of them Asians however; there are now 140,000, showing how Korea is opening up to other cultures). He was the first foreigner on television, suddenly becoming a household name when as an actor in a soap opera he married a Korean girl, showing it as something positive for the first time on television in the early 90s. This profile helps him to deliver his message via the press today: just after his inauguration in August 2009, there were more articles in the newspapers about him than about the prime minister.
‘I want to overhaul our overseas ad campaigns, explain more, and create a nationwide network to connect people with ideas. Koreans enjoy give and take with the world, interacting with the world.
‘Korean nature can be a source of tremendous energy that would appeal to all of Europe for its hiking and trekking. You can walk for days at a leisurely pace, meeting people in the little villages.’ The mountains are what attracted him first to Korea, not too high (so you can climb them without equipment) and they are full of what he calls energy places or power spots. ‘At Taebaek Mountain there’s a clay path you can walk up barefoot to absorb the energy from the earth as the clay massages your feet. It’s also a spiritual landscape.’ Buddhist temples are built in beautiful locations with mountains behind and a view to water, and Korean Buddhism is very inclusive. ‘There are more than 50,000 active shamans – it’s a culture that’s very much alive in Korea.
‘Recharge yourself physically, spiritually, culturally; refresh your mind with the vitality you find in the people, with the energy of walking through a market at three a.m… Many cities say they never sleep, but Seoul really doesn’t! There’s also a vibrant urban culture in the major cities, a sophistication that’s changing all the time.’
Everything he says rings remarkably true to me. Those are the wonderful things about Korea. I can’t help saying it, Mr Lee is full of charm, even as he dashes away to his next appointment. And I’m full of energy.