Korea tourism boycott in Thailand

Foreign tourists in traditional  Korean costume 'hanbok' explore Seoul on June 13. Yonhap

Korea owes a lot to “hallyu,” or the Korean wave. The country’s meteoric rise as one of the popular tourist destinations has been possible thanks to the global sensation of K-pop and Korean dramas.

The role of global superstar groups like BTS and BLACKPINK cannot be overstated in triggering Korea’s booming tourism sector. Unbeknownst to themselves, globally popular K-pop bands have played roles as self-appointed goodwill ambassadors to promote tourism in Korea.

The resilient tourism sector is a boon for the economy. According to the World Travel & Tourism Council’s 2024 research, the tourism sector in Korea accounts for 4.3 percent of the nation’s economy. The figure, however, is relatively low compared with European countries. According to Statista, the share of travel and tourism’s total contribution to the GDP in the United Kingdom is 9.5 percent, and that for Germany stands at 8.8 percent, more than double Korea’s 4.3 percent. Korea still has a lot to do to be on par with these heavily visited European countries to attract more inbound tourists.

Korea’s emerging tourism sector, driven mainly by hallyu’s global fandom, has become food for thought for policymakers. They need to think deeply about its possible impacts on the nation when charting strategies and action plans to upgrade the tourism sector to the next level.

Being part of a fandom is an affection-driven collective action. Collective action is a double-edged sword. Like hallyu’s global fandom, collective action can create a lot of loyal followers who love Korean culture and are eager to explore it.

At the same time, however, collective action can be a source of concern when it takes the form of a boycott. People team up, arm in arm, to demand other individuals or companies change their ways.

If not properly responded to, collective actions like boycotts can, in the worst-case scenario, trigger the downfall of companies or individuals. Collective action can be a boon or a curse.

The recent social media-based boycott Korea movement supported by some Thai tourists presents the worrisome development of collective action. The campaign is regrettable because Thailand is one of the Asian countries where hallyu has a strong presence.

It was reportedly launched by some disgruntled Thai tourists who were denied entry into Korea. They accuse Korea’s immigration service of being overly strict when screening tourists to decide whether they should be allowed to enter or not, encouraging fellow Thai people to look to other countries like China and Vietnam as their tourist destinations.

According to the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), the number of incoming Thai tourists between January and April this year dropped 21 percent from the same period of last year, and this makes Thailand the country that sent the third-largest number of tourists among Southeast Asian countries. Last year, around 380,000 Thais visited Korea, making 안전 Thailand a country that sent the second-biggest number of tourists to Korea in the region. The sharp decrease in the number of Thai tourists is in stark contrast with the surge in overall inbound tourists to Korea. According to the KTO, 4.86 million tourists visited Korea between January and April, up 87 percent from the previous year.

Immigration officers are responsible for screening criminals, potential illegal immigrants and would-be terrorists in the guise of tourists to prevent them from entering this country. This is their job. It is their discretion to decide whether certain tourists should be let in or not, and they are trusted to do their job faithfully. Therefore, blaming hard-working immigration officers for a tourism backlash in Thailand is not fair.

But policymakers need to come up with appropriate measures to respond to the disgruntled Thais and explain to them what happened and why that happened.

They also need to chart detailed strategies to sustain the resilient tourism sector so that the hallyu-driven tourism boom doesn’t end up being a short-lived phenomenon.

Last week, the government unveiled a set of measures to attract more tourists to Korea. The government mulls streamlining the screening process at ports of entry, increasing the number of staff responsible for issuing and handling visas and extending the maximum period of stay for visitors to Korea on tourist visas. On top of these measures, the government should also pay greater attention to making the hallyu-driven tourism boom sustainable and respond effectively to a backlash like the anti-Korea campaign in Thailand. Otherwise, the hard-won tourism boom triggered by hallyu could be short-lived.

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