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Growth and change: KTO marks 25 years

  • Air
  •   05-12-2015  9:11 am

Growth and change: KTO marks 25 years

When the Korea Tourism Organization opened the doors of its Toronto office on April 27, 1990, its safe to say that the country’s travel industry was in a much different state from that of today.

Earlier this spring, while preparing for the KTO Toronto office’s move, Director Doojo Kim and Randy Snape took a break from packing to chat with PAX about the KTO’s first 25 years in Canada. Coincidentally, the KTO moved into its new location, now at 25 Adelaide St. E, exactly 25 years to the date the organization first began promoting travel out of its original Toronto office.

Grand opening of KTO's Toronto office on April 27, 1990. Pictured are Ken Black, Minister of Tourism and Recreation for Ontario & Yeongkil Jo, first director of the KTO Toronto office. Evolution of a destination

According to Kim, who joined the Toronto KTO office in 2013, Canadian tourism to the country has grown substantially since 1990. While the U.S. and Russia are currently the top two long-haul markets for the country respectively, Kim and Snape believe that it’s not long before third-place Canada (with some strong competition from Australia) overtakes Russia for the number two spot.

“Canadian travellers to Korea in 1990 numbered 25,000,” he recalled. “Last year the number was 146,000. That’s almost six times as many. KTO’s marketing activity has worked; the total foreign tourism to Korea in 1990 was 3 million, [whereas] last year it was 14 million."

According to Kim and Snape, it was only one year before the Toronto office opened that a major change in the Korean travel landscape took place, thanks to the after-effects of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics which thrust the country into the international spotlight and had a profound effect on travel. Snape said that with the Winter Olympics coming to the city of Pyeongchang in 2018, he expects to see a similar surge take place again.

“Before the Olympics, most Korean people could not enjoy overseas travel without special permission,” Kim said. “But after the [1988] Olympics, the government allowed the people to enjoy travel. This attracted more tourism, because Korean people loved to travel so much that flight service was increased between Korea and other countries, and with more flights came more foreign visitors.”

“No one had a good idea of what Korea was back then – it was the 1980s,” Snape added. “It was a snowball effect and we’re expecting to see that again in 2018.”

Over the last 25 years, the exchange between the Korea and Canada has only grown stronger through measures such as visa waiver and Open Sky agreements (and most recently, last year’s free trade agreement), all allowing for easier travel, according to Kim, who explained that such growth is built on a foundation of friendship between the two nations. And with more travel between the countries, word-of-mouth promotion has also increased.

“Traditionally, Korean people see Canada as a close friend – during the Korean War, many Canadian soldiers fought for Korea, and so many Canadian English teachers are coming to the country – one of my teachers was Canadian,” Kim said. “He told me a lot about Canada and made me think I should visit one day. They usually work there for a couple years and once they’re back in Canada, they talk about Korea to their friends and family – that’s great promotion of Korean tourism. The close relationship makes it possible to increase the tourism.”

The KTO at a consumer trade show in February 1994Constant change

Within the Toronto office itself, change is a constant. With new directors and head office staff rotating every three years (a common practice for many Asian NTOs, according to Snape), the office has seen nine directors in 25 years including Kim (who will return to Korea in 2016) and three Toronto locations, moving last month to Adelaide St. E from Bay St., where the KTO was located since 1999 following nine years on University Ave.

That change is also in the marketing of Korea as a travel destination, Kim said, with many slogans – and strategies – taking various approaches to increase tourism.

“In 1980, we had a slogan that said ‘Land of Morning Calm,’” Kim recalled, adding at the time, Korea’s culture and history were the main tourism selling points. “People thought that Korea was a very quiet place. After Korea had been developed and the economy expanded, people started thinking Korea wasn’t so quiet anymore, so they changed the slogan to 'Dynamic Korea.'”

Last year the KTO debuted its latest slogan – 'Imagine Your Korea' – which replaced the 'Sparkling Korea' tagline used since 2008.

“To me, it means the modern Korea has so many kinds of attractions and whatever it is you want, you can have and enjoy it in Korea,” Kim said. 

The new slogan is aimed at drawing more FIT travellers to the country, another change from the focus on groups in the early 1990s.

“Groups are still important but not the only form of travel we pay attention to,” Kim said. “FIT seems to be the future of travel everywhere else so we’re focusing on both these areas.”

“There’s a big difference between 1990 and now – back then it was entire packages based on one festival or a one-time event,” Snape added. “You won’t find too many like that now.”

Promotion and advertising has also evolved, thanks in part to the massive technological changes taking place since 1990.

“The way we advertised was just through print and we would see how many would hop on a trip,” Snape said. “Last year, we had Yonge and Dundas advertising, online, subways, and we’re considering movie theatres this year. There’s a lot more venues where we can advertise. It’s a totally different market."

However, despite the ease of making online connections, meeting agents and partners in the real world is still an important aspect of promotion, Kim said, with the KTO holding events such as cooking classes or Korean film nights to make those real-world connections.

“We started our Facebook page in 2009 – it was more of a pet project at first to get the most likes through contests,” Snape recalled, adding that the page currently counts 25,000 ‘likes.’ “Our model now is engagement-based, trying to interact with the actual consumer and develop their interest.”

And while the KTO’s network of partners has greatly expanded since 1990, many of those early agent and supplier partners are still working closely with the organization.

The KTO at the International Tourism Exhibition in Vancouver, Sept 19, 1991. “While many things have changed, we still make our travel partners a top priority,” Kim said. “The important thing is that many of our oldest friends are still there and on top of that, we’ve made new friends.

Looking ahead, Kim identified several goals he would like to achieve in the coming years as he prepares to return to the KTO head office in 2016. In addition to seeing Canada become Korea’s second most important long-haul market and the continued focus on the FIT market, Kim said he hopes to establish more partnerships with other Asian NTOs to promote travel to multiple destinations in one trip, an increasingly common practice in the market.

And with travel numbers constantly increasing (as of early April, there was a 17 per cent increase in Canadian tourists to Korea, according to Kim), the future looks as bright as ever.

“We’re a growth market, and ten years of growth shows a lot,” Snape added. “Other destinations don’t show that same growth and it’s important for our partners to see that.”