In March, Korea and 14 Pacific Island countries launched the Korea-Pacific Islands Trade and Tourism Promotion Project, under which the Korean government will finance $1 million (1.2 billion won) in official development assistance (ODA) over the next two years to support more structured and long-term tourism and trade promotional activity for the Pacific region.
The aid funding is the first of its kind for the Korean government to provide for the tourism industry since Seoul began development cooperation projects with them in 1987.
However, the project is about more than just its symbolic significance as it is believed to pave the way for Korea’s local tourist industry to open up a new market for outbound tourists and eventually inbound ones as well.
The 14 nations are Fiji, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.
“Tourism plays a very important role in Pacific Island countries and it has the potential to be a very successful industry,” a foreign ministry official told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity.
Fiji earned $890 million from tourism last year, accounting for 30 percent of its GDP, while 69 percent of the Cook Islands’ GDP came from tourism in 2017.
“In other words, the project means we provide them with a reliable income source.”
Park Jae-a, the representative of the South Pacific Tourism Organization (SPTO), echoed the ministry official’s comments. The body represents the ministry of tourism of each country in the largest ocean on Earth.
“Although we will make efforts to raise public awareness of those countries here and send as many outbound tourists as possible there over the next two years, the true goal of the initiative is to set up tourism infrastructure to help Koreans steadily visit the region after the two-year period,” she told The Korea Times.
Some critics may question what benefits Korea can take in return for the six-digit dollar grant.
“It is like opening up a new market for the local tourist industry,” Park said.
Despite the ever-growing number of outbound tourists ― 28.7 million in 2018 ― local travel agencies still cannot hold their heads high as internet-savvy, price-sensitive travelers opt for self-guided tours over their lucrative package programs.
“The Pacific Islands have been off the beaten track for Koreans so far, so there is little information on the region as a sightseeing destination. If local travel agencies study those countries and come up with solid programs in advance, the region can be a profitable market for them,” Park said. “It would be like a blue ocean for Korean agencies.”
The ministry official said if more Koreans fly to one of the island states, the local tourism sector will be able to have “fringe benefits.”
To this end, the first thing to do is to bring more new flight routes to Pacific Island countries, Park said.
Currently, Korean Air operates three direct flights to Fiji per week, while Air New Zealand is scheduled to launch flights between Auckland and Incheon in November.
“More flights between Korea and New Zealand could lead more Korean tourists to the Pacific region,” Park said.
SPTO Chairperson Sonja Hunter also said in the project launching ceremony in Seoul, “We hope that more air links and promotional activities would take place.”
The ministry official said the government also wants to open up new flight paths, although it is a secondary consideration in running the ODA project.
“However, as part of improving connectivity, the two sides may discuss the issue through the Korea-Pacific Islands foreign ministers’ meetings and the senior officials’ meetings,” he said.
“When the project comes up with tangible results, I expect the issue may be high on the agenda for next year’s foreign ministers’ talks.”
Many Koreans have visited Southeast Asian countries, but in the past people from those countries have been hardly able to return the visit due to economic difficulties.
However, now it is no surprise to see a large number of people from Southeast Asia walking down the street in central Seoul, and the ministry official hopes the Pacific Islands will follow in the footsteps of Southeast Asia.
“The Korean government will be committed to promoting tourism for the Pacific, which will help their economies grow. I expect to see tourists from the Pacific Islands coming to Korea in the end,” he said.
By Kang Seung-woo – The Korea Times