From September 19 to October 4, the third most populous city of South Korea — Incheon — will host athletes and officials participating in 439 events spanning 36 sports, as part of the 2014 Asian Games. Indian travel agencies say that they have already started noticing a spike in interest to visit the country, which until a few years ago, didn’t even figure on the bucket-list for most Indian tourists.
“In 2012, 11.1 million foreign tourists visited South Korea, making it the 20th most-visited country in the world. Lately, we have seen a spurt in queries with the Asian Games about to begin,” says Vikram Malhi, MD, Asia, Expedia, adding that bookings have risen by 10 to 15%.
For Indian tourists, South Korea remains a relatively lesser-explored destination with perceptions about language barriers and difficulty in getting a visa being the biggest deterrents. That mindset is changing now.
“The increase [in interest levels and subsequently bookings] has been around 10% year on year. For the Asiads, we have been getting enquiries from sports fans for athletics, tennis, football and boxing events,” says Karan Anand, head-relationships, Cox And Kings.
In terms of sightseeing, Seoul is the main tourist destination due to its multiple Unesco World Heritage Sites — Changdeokgung Palace, Jongmyo Shrine and the Royal Tombs of the Joseon Dynasty. The Hwaseong Fortress is nearby too. It is also known for its street food, nightlife districts and serene Buddhist temples.
There’s a lot more to see beyond the capital, and the cities of Busan and Incheon.
“As a centre for marine tourism, South Korea enjoys rich off-shore locations — beach cities like Gyeongju to explore great culinary haunts and nightlife, and popular island destinations like Jeju. For those into history and culture, the country has locales with old-style dwellings as well as palaces dedicated to erstwhile ruling dynasties in the Ganghwa region. Andong Hahoe Folk Village offers a view into traditional Korean culture,” says Vicki Parris, national brand leader, India, Flight Shop.
Koreans are quality conscious and even the flea markets there offer bargain buys with assured product shelf-life. The country is a popular shopping destination for electronics too. Shopaholics can explore districts like the Dongdaemun Market in Seoul. Similarly, BIFF Square in Busan is a street shopper’s delight. South Korea houses some of the biggest luxury brands in the world.
Cheongdam Fashion Street is a shopping destination for luxury purchases. “Gwangjang market in Seoul feels like it’s been frozen in time; food and fabrics are sold here. Doota is one of the largest fashion malls at Dongdaemun Market and is filled with domestic brands. The famous Namdaemun Market (in Seoul) specialises in cheap clothing and accessories. One can get everything here, from food and flowers to spectacles and seaweed,” says Vishal Suri, chief executive officer-tour operating, Kuoni India.
Jeju Island: Also known as the ‘Island Of The Gods’ (like Bali), it is a great place to cherish picturesque beauty. Udo is one of the most-visited spots here — its main attraction is a submarine excursion to two caves, including one to the Dongangyeonggul Cave. One can also vist the Cheonjiyeon Falls and Spirited Garden.
Seongsan Ilchulbong Sunrise Peak: Hydrovolcanic eruptions formed this majestic volcanic crater 5,000 years ago on Jeju Island. A Unesco World Heritage Site, it is best known for the magnificent view of the sun rising over it.
Andong Hahoe Folk Village: Head here to soak up Korean culture.
Manisan Mountain: Considered one of the most sacred mountains in South Korea, it is also a favourite haunt among trekkers.
Cheomseongdae: It is home to the oldest existing astronomical observatory in Asia.
Ulleungdo Island: Nicknamed ‘Mysterious Island’, it is a popular weekend getaway spot for locals. Curious rock formations, shore cliffs and numerous waterfalls adorn the island.
Gyeongju: An ancient capital of the Shilla Dynasty, it is often referred to as “a museum with no walls”. It is home to South Korea’s first nominated Unesco World Heritage site.
The Korean Demilitarised Zone: This strip of land runs across the Korean Peninsula. It acts as a buffer zone between North and South Korea.