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Q&A: South Korea a Key Convention Centre in Asia

Thalif Deen Interviews SAMUEL KOO, CEO of the Seoul Tourism Organisation

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 29 2010 (IPS) - The Republic of Korea (ROK), one of the fastest growing industrial nations and the world’s 13th largest economy, has not only survived the global financial crisis but is also gearing up to play a key role in the international arena.

Samuel Koo Credit: Courtesy of Samuel Koo

Samuel Koo Credit: Courtesy of Samuel Koo

Over the next three years, South Korea will host several major global conferences, including the G20 summit in November, the high-level meeting on aid effectiveness in 2011 and the World Conservation Congress in 2012.

With the G20 summit, says President Lee Myung-bak, Korea will come into international focus and will become a genuinely developed nation.

When South Korea joined the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 1996, it was only one of two countries (the other being Mexico) to graduate from the status of a developing to an industrial nation in the “rich man’s club” based in Paris.

As it strengthens its relations with the developing world, Korea has pledged to triple its official development assistance (ODA) to 3.0 billion dollars by 2015, as the onetime aid recipient aspires to become a key international donor.

In the industrial field, Samsung Electronics is set to overtake the U.S.-based Hewlett Packard – by sales – as the world’s biggest technology company, while a Korean consortium has won a landmark 20-billion-dollar civilian nuclear power deal with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), beating out the United States, France and Japan.

Samuel Koo, president and chief executive officer of the Seoul Tourism Organisation (STO) and the Seoul Convention Bureau, is spearheading an intensive campaign to bolster the Korean brand name and spruce up the country’s tourist image overseas.

He attributes much of the widespread attraction of Korea to Seoul’s well developed tourism infrastructure, modern and attractive convention facilities and service capabilities, plus its reputation as the capital of the “Korean Wave” of drama, fashion, arts and dining.

“The tourism industry in Korea has weathered the (financial) storm well,” he said.

While the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) reported just a 3.0 percent increase in Asia Pacific travel in 2009, Korea enjoyed an 11 percent increase.

During the global financial crisis, he said, the Korean currency weakened, bringing about a much appreciated silver lining: a continuous wave of tourists, mostly from the neighbouring Asian countries of China and Japan.

Seoul hotels experienced record occupancy levels and the nation welcomed almost 8.0 million visitors by year end, exceeding the annual target of 7.5 million.

In an interview with IPS U.N. Bureau Chief Thalif Deen, Koo said: “This year’s challenge will be to continue the roll.”

Promoting the tourism industry is now a top priority for Seoul, with an eye to create 30,000 jobs and generate 6 trillion Korean Won (about 5.3 billion dollars) in economic benefits.

To support those efforts, the city is working closely with the STO to expand the convention industry by hosting 150 conferences and meetings, said Koo, an ex-director of special projects at the United Nations, and a former director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF at its regional office in Japan.

And on another front, he said, Seoul has partnered with STO in order to further develop the niche market for medical tourism, which is gaining in popularity throughout Asia.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: With a rising and vibrant economy, Korea is one of the world’s fastest growing industrial nations. What role does tourism play in the country’s economy? A: For years, as Korea toiled to develop its economy, tourism did not rank high on the government’s list of priorities. However, once those efforts paid off and Korea established its strong economic position on the global stage, the government turned its search outward and specifically tapped the tourism industry as a powerful growth engine capable of revitalising and expanding the national economy.

Within the industry, both the Korean national government and the capital city of Seoul’s metropolitan government placed special emphasis on the Meetings, Incentives, Convention and Exhibition (MICE) as one with the greatest growth potential.

Q: In the context of climate change and environmental pollution worldwide, how “green” is tourism in Korea? A: Seoul is actively tackling energy and environmental issues with the new “Low-Carbon, Green Growth” law. Due to go into effect in April 2010, the law mandates the country develops eco-friendly businesses and projects that will lead to both economic growth and reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: How close are you to the new concept of eco-tourism? A: The introduction of official green policy has placed a special emphasis on eco-tourism in Korea. Seoul has great potential to develop into an ideal green city with its abundance of natural resources from the majestic mountains that ring the city and Han River, which flows through the city.

New city plans call for creating a downtown green axis aimed to bathe the city with greenery. The Han River Renaissance project is a major work in progress to restore the riverside area to its natural setting by replacing the concrete riverbanks with trees and plants and green spaces exclusively for wildlife.

Q: How do you plan to cope with the risks of the big city pollution factor? A: Seoul plans to replace all carbon-fuel-powered public buses with natural-gas-powered ones by the end of 2010 and aims to replace all public buses with either electric or hybrid ones by 2020, improving the air quality to the level of such OECD cities as New York and Tokyo.

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