An increasing number of foreign tourists in Seoul now prefer to stay for short-term periods at budget hotels as opposed to long-term stays at five-star hotels, according to surveys.
Despite the shift, Lee Charm, president of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), was slow to meet the changing pattern, lawmakers said Wednesday.
The poor response, they said, has resulted in foreign budget hotels' aggressive invasion into the niche domestic market, driving cheap local hotels with old and poor amenities to lose an edge in the race.
Lee, the first naturalized Korean to rise to a position of leadership in a state-run body, said that the tourism agency kicked off the sales pitches for a government-led budget hotel chain project, dubbed the "Best Night in Korea."
The culture ministry-driven project, which was introduced in 2006, was aimed at building cheap but enjoyable local hotels that cost below $100 per night.
After completing the first two-year pilot project, the KTO has just begun promoting the chain.
. . .
Lee made the remarks after Rep. Kim Boo-kyum of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) pointed out that the nation is helpless in the face of the aggressive invasion of foreign budget hotels, seeing a rising demand from foreign travelers.
"Several cheap foreign hotel chains -- such as Best Western Inn and Toyoko Inn -- have expanded their business activities here. The Japanese hotel chain for example, opened its first chain in Korea in Busan last year and plans to open 60 more inns in big cities over the next 10 years," Kim said.
Citing a survey, Kim pointed out that foreign tourists are unwilling to stay longer here, mainly because they are not satisfied with food and accommodation. He urged KTO President Lee to address the problems in the budget hotel chain project.
Legislators also called on the KTO chief to come up with a specific, feasible and detailed tourism strategy, sharing the view that the tourism industry could become the backbone of the economy in the future.
Let's just be clear, before we get started, this is the same KTO that put out slogans like "Korea Sparkling" and "Visit Korea Year: 2010-2012," at least one of which was launched years before Lee took office. This is also a country that has been bemoaning its lack of an international brand for years.
And speaking of failures that took place long before the damned
This is exactly the situation the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism were waiting for when they jointly launched a domestic hotel chain, ``BENIKEA,'' to win some market share back from established foreign brands such as InterContinental, Hilton, Hyatt and Novotel.
However, just two years into its existence, it's hard to tell whether BENIKEA, which is short for ``best night in Korea,'' is dead or alive. Perhaps the most telling indicator of its health is that it's Web site (www.benikea.com), which accepts reservations for member hotels and has been a central part of promotion efforts for foreign travelers, hasn't been operating for the last two months.
The Korea Tourism Office (KTO), a sub-organization of the Tourism Industry that's been managing the BENIKEA project, is now reportedly considering pulling the plug.
``BENIKEA hotels basically failed to differentiate themselves from motels,'' said Geum Ki-young, a researcher from the Seoul Development Institute.
``The services, facilities and prices were never competitive and a brand image for BENIKEA never existed, and this easily explains the crisis.''
Foreigners have constantly griped about Seoul's high accommodation prices. The city's five-star properties charge about 300,000 won (about $223) per night, a rate that rivals those in Tokyo and Hong Kong, two of the world's most expensive hotel cities, and significantly more than hotels in Shanghai, Taiwan and Singapore.
At the other end of the spectrum are the cheap but often trashy motels, many of them infamous for their poor amenities and shady atmosphere, built for sex-seeking locals rather than foreign travelers.
BENIKEA hotels were supposed to exploit this gap in the hotel market, providing clean and comfortable facilities without the unnecessary frills at about one-third of the prices of rooms at luxury hotels.
The plan was to convert a number of motels and budget hotels to BENIKEA tourists hotels, requiring them to meet certain quality standards and tailor their services for foreigners and charge 30,000 won to 50,000 won per night.
But currently, BENIKEA so far has only 36 member hotels, making a mockery of the government predictions for 300 properties by the end of 2010. And the quick read on the list proves that it's failing to find its niche market.
With the lack of interest becoming apparent among budget properties, BENIKEA began accepting luxury hotels as members to maintain its pulse, thus falling out of the price range of many cost-conscious travelers.
Indeed, it wasn't until I read that article in the paper back in May that I even heard of these hotels, and I'm one who likes to keep up on hotel and motel talk. You can browse those hotels here, though rather than creating new facilities it just absorbed existing ones. A hotel like Toyoko-Inn is able to succeed because Korea doesn't have any low-priced accomodation easily available to tourists.
I've written extensively about motels, and have said repeatedly that they are not only two or three times cheaper than the average tourist hotel in Korea, but they usually have better amenities. In the past I've compared, for example, Suncheon's Ivy Motel with the Suncheon Royal Tourist Hotel. The former has rooms for between 40,000 won and 60,000 won per night, while the latter starts at 65,000 won, is significantly older, and significantly dirtier. If you'll permit me to quote myself from May, 2008:
The rooms in tourist hotels have been unimpressive. While they weren't terribly dirty, they were old and not very nice-looking. Moreover, in spite of the higher rates, they didn't offer anything a motel lacked, and in fact they had quite a bit less. For 65,000 won a night you can book a room in the shitty-looking City Tourist Hotel in Suncheon, or for the same amount or less you can get a motel room on Haeundae Beach in Busan. I stayed in the Noblesse, and for 60,000 won I got a computer---two actually---a TV that projected onto a drop-down screen, a refrigerator, water cooler, jacuzzi, free ramyeon, a big bed, and all kinds of bizarre lights. And, I was a block away from the best-known beach in the country. So motels are cheaper, generally cleaner and fancier, and have nicer stuff. And that's not even getting into the "theme motels" with quirky, swanky rooms that still cost much less than a tourist hotel, and with loads more character and charm than some generic place that deigns to have an Engrish-language site.
Many of the tourist hotels in Jeollanam-do listed on the KTO page start at over 100,000 won per night. I'll invite you to browse the "Motels and hotels" category for a few local write-ups, and read this article from Yonhap this summer about all the different uses fancy motels are getting. I've posted motel directory sites several times, and would recommend you browse Hotel 365, Motel Guide, and Yanolja to get a feel for what's out there. At this motel in Uijeongbu, for instance, if you pay 80,000 won on a Saturday night---or 70,000 won a weekday---you can choose between a room with a motorcycle in it, or a room with a stripper pole in the middle.
But the one big advantage these tourist hotels have is that they turn up in English-language Google searches. An international tourist will not have access to information about motels on the internet, and will prefer the peace-of-mind that comes with being able to make reservations in advance and on a website in a language that approximates English. A search for Jeollanam-do motels and inns on the KTO website, for instance, only turns up six in the entire province, while a search for Gwangju turns up nothing. Searching for Jeollanam-do motels in Korean on Naver turns up 775; searching for Gwangju turns up 464.
While Koreans of course make plenty of use of motels, and not for travel, there is a bit of shame about them, especially if foreigners suspect what they're really used for. I'll direct you to the stink an article in the Gwangju News made when it wrote
In Gwangju, the neon lights of a love motel are never far from view. Young couples use love motels to enjoy a romantic night away from parental scrutiny. Love motels are also a rendezvous point for extramarital affairs. Like beauty pageant contestants, love motels decked out in exotic attire vie for attention along the Gwangjucheon waterfront.
That's true, of course, but people would prefer foreigners didn't notice that. One effort in that direction was the creation of "World Inns" around the time of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup. It was to create accommodation that didn't have the look, or the stigma, of love motels. Though there are plenty of motels that don't have gaudy exteriors or sleazy interiors, the designation "World Inn" hasn't lasted.
Toyoko-Inn, and other foreign chains, can be successful because they provide a basic service that is lacking in Korea. Lee should work to make it easier for foreigners to come here, and to enjoy themselves once they're here, but the failure to create affordable hotels is certainly not his fault, seeing as he's been in place for only three months. The Korea Times article today concludes:
Rep. Lee Jung-hyun of the governing Grand National Party (GNP) demanded that the KTO chief work harder and play a more active role in promoting the culture.
"It's not easy for foreigners to grasp what's inside Korean culture unless they come here and feel it. Therefore, effective tourism pitches are the key, but I sense that the KTO has not played that role," said Lee.
Certainly not, if it's creating slogans like "Korea Sparkling" and "Visit Korea Year: 2010-2012."
But it's naive to think Korea's tourism problems started when the
Incidentally, a word about Toyoko-Inn, since you're here. I've stayed at the one near Busan Station a few times as it's fairly close to the international ferry terminal. Rooms are reasonable and clean, and there's a complimentary breakfast buffet in the morning. However, it's good to know that if you book online you get a 10,000 won discount. What I've done each time is, without making a reservation in advance, gone into the hotel lobby and, using the computer in the lobby, booked a room there and walked over to the check-in desk.