Developing sustainable tourism in Korea – interview with Dr. Mihee Kang

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Dr. Mihee Kang speaking at the ecotourism workshop during GSTC Conference in Suwon, Korea, in October 2016

Dr. Mihee Kang is a research professor at Seoul National University, researching topics related to protected areas management and sustainable tourism. Recently she co-founded Playforest, a cooperative of sustainable travel businesses designed to benefit local communities and local activists dedicated to the conservation of their forests and to provide genuine community-based natural tourism experiences to the visitors.

Since 2002 she has worked on introducing and developing the Korean ecotourism certification program. She was in charge of developing the Korean criteria and has been taking the lead at implementing the certification program. She has also been leading the revision of the different set of ecotourism criteria based on GSTC criteria and have led the development of the Korean Sustainable City Tourism Standard which got GSTC-recognition in August 2016. She serves as the GSTC Country Representative for South Korea. She spoke with Anula Galewska about efforts to develop sustainable tourism in Korea.

This article is part of the interview series with Speakers of the GSTC Conferences in Suwon, Korea and Athens, Greece held in October and November 2016.

Anula: What challenges does tourism in Korea face and how sustainability can help?

Mihee: Korean tourism has been an international market focused on price. The government calculates the success of tourism in number of tourist arrivals. It has caused cheap but low quality tours which doesn’t always provide satisfactory experiences to the inbound tourists.

Nevertheless, there has been movement for sustainable tourism development led by ecotourism development in the rural and protected areas. The Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and the Korean Ministry of Environment have supported ecotourism and community-based tourism development since late of 2000. As the results, we have lots of knowledgeable and qualified local guides thanked to government supported training programs and authentic attractions with well conserved nature and culture.

The challenge is that how we spread the principles of sustainable tourism development throughout the mainstream tourism. There is more and more awareness of responsible and fair tourism development and we need to keep pushing the concept into all tourism markets in Korea.

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Randy Durband, Mihee Kang, Roi Ariel and other speakers of the GSTC Conference

Anula: Do you think that Korean tourists would be willing to pay more, if they knew their money supported local people and environment?

Mihee: According to one of the researches I have conducted a few years ago, people say they are willing to pay more. But this willingness may not be reflected in the actual purchases. However, the result is very encouraging. Tourists prefer and appreciate locally produced products and interaction with local people. But we need to educate tourists why we need to consume locally and consider local welfare and conservation of culture and nature. Then their intention will happen in action.

I encourage the destinations of ecotourism and CBT to target responsible inbound market rather than Korean market. That’s because they can provide genuine experiences to the international tourists who want to experience a real Korea at a higher price reducing negative environmental and socio-cultural impacts from mass tourists visits. Many rural communities said they were not ready as they were afraid of language barriers but now more and more communities say they can. They don’t want to sell their resources and themselves at a low price.

This is why I established a cooperative, the Playforest. We develop our own tours as a tour operator, but the main purpose is to sell local tours managed by local communities or local organizations. Our platform is available in English and Korean. Before adding a new product on the platform, we check if they fit our criteria. This is a way we support local communities dedicated to sustainable tourism development but have difficulties to access tourists market due to lack of skills, finance or technology.

Anula: And how do you communicate these products to the end customers?

Mihee: Korea is a most successful country in reforestation and there are ongoing efforts to conserve the environments. However, we don’t talk about sustainability directly. Instead, we emphasize the story of the forest and the local communities as our products are mainly focused on forests and aimed to benefit the communities that have lived with the forest. We promote the person over the product. For example, we highlight and tell a story of our local guides. We also promote our products through SNS including Facebook. This is how Playforest communicates with potential customers.
Korean governments agencies such as the Korea Tourism Organization and Korea National Park Service have websites to introduce ecotourism and nature-based tourism destinations.

We don’t talk about sustainability directly. Instead, we emphasize the story of the forest and the local communities as our products are mainly focused on forests and aimed to benefit the communities that have lived with the forest. We promote the person over the product.

Anula: Do people in Korea easily relate to the concept of sustainable tourism?

Mihee: In Korea we use the term “sustainable tourism” in academia, not in the field. Since 1992 people have started talking about sustainable development, which then also transferred into sustainable development of tourism. People may be familiar with the term and concept of sustainable development but may not be with sustainable tourism as it was not used much in the market to communicate with the customers. Ecotourism, on the other hand, was more tangible and accepted easily by the public. Of course, there has been some misused and over-used cases.
Sustainability is a principle, whereas ecotourism is a product, which suits very well Korean needs.
According to the longitudinal surveys we carried out since 1998, the public’s understanding and experiences of ecotourism have increased. So we can say that the Korean is quite aware of sustainability and sustainable tourism. But it doesn’t mean their travel behaviors are sustainable or they are mostly responsible tourists. The Korean government has put a lot of efforts to provide interpretation and education services to the tourists.

Anula: As you said, ecotourism is one of the products. Do other tourism sectors vital for Korea, like city tourism, business travel or MICE, also focus on their sustainability?

Mihee: Yes. The most active sector is ecotourism but other sectors have started to be active too. However, in others we use the term “fair travel”. People understand what fair trade means in other industries, and so also can apply it to tourism. There are a couple of fair travel companies, which do a good job. The term “fair travel” also resonates very well with the public.
There are also a few certified hotels and convention centers. More and more tourism businesses show their interests in sustainable management and certification.

The most active sector is ecotourism but other sectors have started to be active too. However, in others we use the term “fair travel”. People understand what fair trade means in other industries, and so also can apply it to tourism.

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Mihee Kang and Randy Durband at the Closing Dinner, GSTC Conference in Suwon

Anula: Why do you think the local government has organised and supported the GSTC conference? Does it mean they see the need for sustainable tourism?

Mihee: That’s very true. Tourism market in Korea has been changing. More tourists demand well conserved environment and genuine experiences. The city of Suwon is one of leading cities in sustainable city development. The city has made big efforts to increase ecofriendly energy production, expand car-free zones, involve the public in city development and management, and conserve their cultural assets including the Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city understands the reason why they need sustainable tourism development. It’s not separate issue from their other activities and efforts. The city is committed to sustainable development of the city and it made the city host the GSTC conference. The city also got the GSTC destination assessment of the Hwaseong Fortess before the conference. The fortress is the main tourism attraction and the city wanted to improve its management by understanding the issues and challenges of the fortress tourism management. The city has developed the Korean Sustainable City Tourism Standard and got GSTC-recognition late August this year. The standard will be used as a guideline for sustainable city tourism development and management in the beginning. The city has a plan working with other Korean cities for making more sustainable tourism destinations.

Anula: Understanding the concept is the first step. What else needs to be done to develop sustainable tourism in Korea further?

Mihee: The grassroots movement is crucial but the role of the government is also indispensable. The right projects carried by the central government have bigger influences on local tourism development and made local governments do better job by enforcing local stakeholders’ involvement.

As an academic and a consultant, I have tried to communicate closely with government officials. I believe that once they have the right understanding of sustainability, they will create better policies, and these can really contribute to sustainable tourism development.
I also work closely with local organizations and leaders. I share my knowledge and take a role of bridge between the government and the local communities.

Korean rural areas and protected areas have a better understanding of sustainable tourism and have been working on community-based tourism and ecotourism. Now it’s time to work with the cities and mass tourism sites. I hope the GSTC conference stimulates Korea to make a big step onto sustainable tourism and the planned future GSTC training programs and other activities influence positively on the Korean tourism business sector.

The grassroots movement is crucial but the role of the government is also indispensable. The right projects carried by the central government have bigger influences on local tourism development and made local governments do better job by enforcing local stakeholders’ involvement.

Anula: And how about the universities? What role does education play in raising awareness about sustainable tourism in Korea?

Mihee: Academia’s role is firstly to educate their students about sustainability and sustainable tourism so they can apply the concept of sustainable tourism into field work. Its role isn’t limited to the classes in the university. There are many public educational programs and academia should provide effective curriculum for the public to raise their awareness and understanding. There are also occupational training programs for guides, tourism entrepreneurs, auditors, etc. Academia is usually involved in developing curriculums and educational materials for those programs and giving lectures.

Another important role of academia is to collect and analyze information on tourism. Without data, it’s hard to diagnose the present and suggest strategies for a better future. Both theoretical and practical researches should be carried out and the results should be shared with the policy maker and the market.

I have two short-term plans as an academic; Firstly, I am going to update my old book on ecotourism published in 2002 with more good practices and new trends on tourism. The other plan is to hold GSTC Sustainable Tourism training on a regular basis.


GSTC Global Sustainable Tourism Conference took place in Suwon, Korea in October 2016. To view presentations from the past conference and learn about upcoming GSTC events, visit GSTC website.

 

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