South Korea's Tourism Industry

Host of the 1988 Summer Olympics, the 2002 FIFA World Cup and the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics, South Korea is a modern yet traditional country. Each year, the country attracts millions of visitors from across East Asia and beyond. From the capital of Seoul to beautiful beaches and unspoilt wilderness, the country offers a rich menu of attractions for tourists. South Korea is increasingly becoming a destination of choice for foreign visitors.

Tourism Industry Overview and Statistics

In 2010, the government of South Korea launched a marketing campaign to attract 10 million foreign tourists annually by 2012. In 2009, 7.81 million foreign visitors travelled to the country. In 2012, the number of foreign tourists who travelled to South Korea increased to 11.1 million, according to the Korea Tourism Organization. This marked an increase of 13.7 percent from the previous year. Tourists spent an estimated US$15.7 billion in 2012, with tourism receipts accounting for an estimated US$14.2 billion.

Most of the South Korean tourism industry is led by domestic travellers. Excellent transportation links, including extensive rail and bus connections means that it is possible for residents of Korea to visit much of the country as a day trip. As a result of their proximity, Japan and China remain the largest sources of foreign tourists to South Korea. Hong Kong and Taiwan are also significant sources of foreign visitors to the country.

Main Tourist Destinations

Seoul is the main tourist destination for visitors to South Korea. A major financial and cultural centre in East Asia, Seoul is the country's largest and most important city. Linked to the world by the Incheon International Airport, Seoul is home to palaces, museums and temples. The city has five major palaces, including the grand Gyeongbok-gung and Changdeok-gung, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 15th century. The city is also surrounded by excellent mountain trails for hiking, including the popular Mount Bukhan. Other major sites include Olympic Park, Namsan Park, Jongmyo Shrine, Inwang Temple and Mount Inwang, and Bongeun Temple.

In addition to Seoul, the ancient capitals of Gyeongju and Buyeo are popular draws. Gyeongju served as the capital of Silla, an ancient kingdom that ruled much of the Korean Peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. The city and surrounding area has a wealth of archaeological and cultural sites, including the Seokguram Grotto and the Bulguksa Temple. The historic centre of Gyeongju and the Yangdong Folk Village are recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Buyeo County was the capital of Baekje in the 6th and 7th centuries. Baekje was one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, along with Silla and Gorguryeo. Celebrating the ancient history of Baekje, the annual Baekje Cultural Festival in Buyeo is one of the country's top events. The county's top sites include mountain fortresses at Seongheung, Buso and Cheong, as well as the temple at Gunsu-ri and the tumuli of Neungsan-ri.

Visitors to South Korea also venture to a range of natural and cultural attractions within the country. A main destination is Seorak-san National Park, which is located in the Taebaek mountain range. The national park is particularly beautiful during the autumn, when the forest changes into vibrant hues of red and yellow. The park is also home to impressive waterfalls, secluded hiking trials and spectacular rock formations. Other natural wonders that draw domestic and foreign tourists alike include Jiri-san National Park and Hwanseon Cave, one of the largest limestone caves in Asia and the largest in Korea.

Jeju Island, a semi-tropic island in the Korean Strait, is the country's largest island. Jeju's natural setting and beaches are popular draws for domestic tourists, as well as tourists from elsewhere in East Asia. Top destinations in Jeju include the Cheonjeyeon and Cheonjiyeon waterfalls, the Hyeobje and Manjang caves, and Mount Halla within the Hallasan National Park. The island's excellent tourism infrastructure includes golf courses and horseback riding trails. Other popular activities on the island include fishing, hunting and mountain climbing.

A unique travel experience in South Korea is a visit to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). One of the tensest borders in the world, the Korean Peninsula remains divided between north and south since the end of the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. Crossing the border into North Korea is possible with special permission, including with an organised tour arranged in South Korea or before travelling to the peninsula.