Recession Hits Home for Local Korean Tourism Agencies

BY JONATHAN SHIA

Until the economic crisis hit last autumn, 2009 was looking to be a banner year for Dongbu Tour, New York City’s largest Korean tourism firm. Korean tourism had nearly tripled between 2002 and 2008, according to NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism organization, and with Korea’s promised entrance to the United States’ Visa Waiver Program, all signs pointed to continued growth. That is, before the ramifications of the recession became clear.

Tourism experts estimate that tourism this year is 5 percent lower than what it was in 2008, the first decline after steady growth since 2001. And although a country-by-country breakdown is not available yet, Korean tourism is believed to have dropped in step with overall tourism this year as travelers cut back.

Workers at Korean tourism company Dongbu adjust to a smaller office as the agency responds to recessionary pressures.

Workers at Korean tourism company Dongbu adjust to a smaller office as the agency responds to recessionary pressures.

With sightseeing bookings falling off at Dongbu, the company had to move to a smaller office and put on hold its plans to expand its visibility in the Northeast. But the firm has remained a key part of the cityscape, the flashes of its green open-air double-decker buses a reminder that, despite the nation’s relatively small population, Korea was the 13th-largest source of tourists to New York in 2007.

Like many other Korean-oriented tourism agencies, Dongbu had been looking forward to welcoming a flood of new visitors; in fact, according to founder Kyu-sung Cho, the company had been preparing for this eventuality for six years. Along with the rest of the tourism industry, Dongbu celebrated as the floodgates opened, but, as Kevin Hong, the Manhattan branch manager of Dongbu, explained, the timing was frustrating.

“We actually had a long-term plan for how we were going to take these people to New York because it’s going to be a lot of people traveling over to New York,” he said. “But then as soon as the visa waiver program starts, the recession comes up, then it’s the swine flu.” He slapped his hands together for emphasis. “We were like, wow.”

Hong has the visa waiver program to thank for his job; the Manhattan branch of Dongbu opened less than two years ago in expectation of an influx of visitors. The phones at the Manhattan branch of Dongbu, situated in Koreatown, rarely stop ringing, though Hong concedes that demand is not as strong as the company had anticipated.

The decline is one of the few roadblocks the company has faced since being formed in 1993. The organization, still headquartered in Flushing, continues to focus on its six-day, five-night tour of the Eastern Seaboard, a trip that Hong says is by far the most popular among customers. But in recent years, it’s begun offering excursions through external tour companies for Koreans to travel to the Caribbean, Europe, South America and Asia, as well as mission trips to Africa. Then, in a sharp act of synergy, Dongbu opened a restaurant in Niagara Falls a few years ago to cater to the thousands of Korean visitors it shuttles through the cascades every year.

The company is also planning to build a resort, complete with hotel, spa and shopping, in Sharon Springs in upstate New York, a stop that will be added to its New York-Washington-Niagara Falls-Boston circuit. The small town near Albany has a long history as a resort destination, famed for its sulphur springs. Dongbu’s latest venture is also an attempt to reach into the non-Korean market. The resort’s website, unlike Dongbu’s, is in English, and a planned shuttle service is expected to bring visitors from all over the tri-state area. But here again, the economic crisis—an issue Hong keeps returning to in his conversations about the company’s future—has foiled Dongbu’s plans, at least temporarily. Construction on the new destination was to be completed this autumn, but the current schedule now places the grand opening some time in the next year.

Hong says that he expects that with the recession slowly passing into history, Korean tourism will pick up again shortly. “The visa waiver program is still there,” he says optimistically. And with its  grand plans in place, Dongbu will be ready to show the new tourists around.

Photo – Jonathan Shia

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