Passports were once the exclusive possession of a privileged few in South Korea until the government began allowing all citizens to travel freely abroad on January 1, 1989.
In order to prevent foreign exchange outflows from depreciating the won against the U.S. dollar and to minimize South Koreans’ contact with the Communist Party, only certain groups of people with special reasons are allowed to travel internationally. These include company officials or businessmen who need to visit foreign partners; students planning to study abroad; and workers employed by overseas companies. Traveling abroad purely for sightseeing is completely banned.
But even those who qualify must meet several requirements of the visa application process, including receiving an anti-communist education from conservative civic groups and passing an English proficiency test.
In 1983, the government began lowering the barriers to travel abroad by imposing age restrictions on visa issuance. South Koreans aged 50 and over can apply for passports or visas to travel to other countries for leisure, but only if they have at least 2 million won in their bank accounts, equivalent to about 6.2 million won ($4,900) today.
This is the beginning of the liberalization of overseas travel in the country.
The upper age limit was gradually relaxed to 40, then 30 in the mid-1980s, until it was fully deregulated on January 1, 1989, when the government allowed everyone to travel abroad, regardless of age or how much money was in the account.
Oh Chang-eun, a professor of contemporary cultural studies at Chung-Ang University, said the success of the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul drove a wave of globalization and raised people’s desire for outbound tourism activities.
“As opportunities for direct or indirect contact with foreigners increased during the Olympics, people’s expectations for international exchanges grew dramatically. In the late 1980s, as the economy grew rapidly and people’s living conditions improved, the government decided to accept people’s demands.”
In 2004, a five-day workweek was introduced to boost work-life balance and help stimulate domestic consumption, adding impetus to outbound travel.
The liberalization of outbound tourism regulations has stimulated the long-suppressed tourism demand of Koreans and injected new impetus into the local tourism market.
On January 1, 1989, the third page of the “Korea Herald” published an article entitled “Holiday Season Sets Off a Boom of International Tourism”, which reported the boom in air travel before the Lunar New Year holiday on February 6 of that year.
Flight bookings to neighboring destinations in Asia such as Taipei, Hong Kong or Bangkok have surged, and travel agencies have offered various package tours for groups of 10 or more to lure customers.
“Recently, there has been a surge in demand for group travel packages in Southeast Asia, but we can only meet 50% of the package booking demand for this month,” the report quoted a manager at Korea Express Travel Agency as saying.
Five- to six-day package tours (including stopovers in three countries) are the most popular tours. Prices vary by travel agency, but are usually between 700,000 and 800,000 won, including airfare and hotel fees, the article said.
“So far, it has become more or less the norm for people to spend New Year’s Day in their hometown or with relatives. It is unthinkable to travel abroad during such a traditional festival. But times have changed, the social environment has changed, and people’s mentality has changed.” The report quoted a travel agency in central Seoul as saying.
In 1989 alone, about 1.21 million Koreans traveled abroad. That’s a huge jump from about half a million people in 1985 before travel restrictions were lifted.
Throughout the 1990s, more than 2.95 million Koreans traveled abroad, according to data compiled by the Korea Tourism Organization.
The number of travel agencies specializing in outbound travel increased exponentially, from 254 in January 1989 to 439 a year later, an increase of 72.8%.
With the growing popularity of traveling abroad, universities are starting to offer study abroad programs for language study.
While most universities now have student exchange programs in which undergraduates can spend a semester or a year at a foreign university, international programs at the time were more like group tours. In the past, groups of about 30-40 undergraduates traveled to English-speaking countries such as the US, UK, Australia or Japan, taking guided bus tours in major cities.
Backpacking trips, overseas honeymoons
Backpacking became part of college culture in the mid-1990s.
During the summer months, many people go on backpacking trips for several weeks, mainly to European countries. A new generation of young and adventurous travelers don’t mind sleeping on overnight trains, eating baguettes and trying to explore as much of the world as possible on a limited budget.
More and more travel agencies are offering tours for backpackers, and now-defunct PC messaging services like Hitel and Chollian are flooding online communities where people share travel tips.
“At that time, putting up posters around university campuses was the best advertising campaign. Many students were eager for new cultural experiences,” said a senior official at travel agency Naeil Travel.
Another important target group of outbound travel agencies are honeymooners.
Before ordinary citizens travel abroad, popular honeymoon destinations are Jeju Island and Gyeongju in North Gyeongsang Province.
There are even special train tour packages, such as the “Honeymoon Train” run by Korea National Railways for newlyweds traveling to these locations on their honeymoon. On the train, the honeymoon couple eats lunch together and socializes through icebreaker games led by entertainment coaches.
After the liberalization of overseas travel, Gimpo International Airport is crowded with newlyweds choosing exotic honeymoon locations, especially during the peak wedding season from May to October.
“The groom’s friends used to gather at the airport and throw him into the air to celebrate his marriage. Popular honeymoon destinations at the time were Guam, Saipan and Hawaii,” recalls a 58-year-old man living in Seoul who went to Bali, a popular Indonesian destination, for his honeymoon in 1996.
Wu, a professor at Chung-Ang University, said exposure to foreign cultures through overseas travel broadens people’s perspectives on other countries as well as their own.
When Wu and a friend went backpacking in Beijing for the first time in January 1997, he was impressed that the locals were friendlier to foreigners than he had imagined.
“Once, we couldn’t buy a train ticket from Beijing to Qingdao because the ticket office was closed. A military officer passing by told us the opening hours in English. Later, a Chinese college student who was also fluent in English helped us buy tickets because it was difficult for us to communicate with the staff at the ticket counter,” Wu said.
The professor noted that exposure to foreign cultures and people from different ethnic backgrounds helped ease the “ethnocentrism” sentiment that was rampant among many South Koreans at the time, largely due to previous travel restrictions.
“During my visit to Kyoto in 2001, I began to rethink how the Korean government manages and protects national cultural heritage, because Japan’s system and rules on national heritage management are very advanced.
“Koreans, who are constantly exposed to ideas of nationalism and patriotism at school, begin to develop a balanced view of their homeland and the world, and ideas of globalization gain more support from the public.”
He added that the continued influx of foreign cultures was another major change brought about by increased contact with the outside world.
“Travel experience allows more Koreans to accept foreign cultures and lifestyles, diversifying people’s consumption trends or eating habits.”
Grassroots cultural exchange paved the way for South Korea to embrace models from other countries, such as educational programs in European schools that focus on student interaction.
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