As summer draws to a close, more and more South Korean tourists are looking to Mongolia over traditional options in Japan and Southeast Asia.
Behind their decision was the lure of fresh cultural experiences, including staying in traditional yurts and camel rides, as well as the eco-resorts this little-known Asian country has to offer.
The latest figures from the Mongolian National Bureau of Statistics show that between January and June this year, South Korean tourists to Mongolia surged 320.2 percent to 43,192, compared with 10,278 in the same period last year.
By nationality, South Koreans were the third-largest inbound tourists to Mongolia during the April-June period, after Russians and Chinese.
According to data from the Korean Air Portal system, flight frequency increased by 102.46%, bringing the total number of flights to 1,972.
“I was attracted to Mongolia because of its vast natural beauty and exotic allures, such as gazing at the stars in the night sky,” said Kim Eun-bi, a 27-year-old office worker who recently went to Mongolia for a summer vacation. “While walking the unpaved road, seeing scattered herds of cattle, horses, sheep and camels is both inspiring and enjoyable.”
“But it was kind of disappointing to see so many Korean tourists; I felt like I was in a Korean city,” she added.
Hanatour, South Korea’s largest travel agency, also highlighted this trend. In 2023, Mongolia tour package bookings during Mongolia’s peak tourist season (June-August) surged by 284.3% compared to the same period last year. Activities offered include visiting the capital Ulaanbaatar, exploring the Gobi Desert and staying in a yurt. Other experiences include stargazing in Terelj National Park, hiking and horseback riding along the Olae Track.
A spokesperson for Hanatour said: “Demand for pristine environments has increased in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Mongolia’s pleasant summer climate and the promise of new experiences are driving this booming demand.”
Recent TV broadcasts featuring Mongolian expeditions have also had a major impact on this emerging trend. The cast of the MBC variety show “I Live Alone” traveled to Mongolia in May, and the cast of the JTBC variety show “Delivery to Mongolia” premiered on August 18.
Falling air ticket prices have also contributed to Mongolia’s rising popularity. Once monopolized by Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, flights to Mongolia are expensive. However, post-COVID-19, airlines such as Jeju Air and T’way Air have entered the market and pushed competitive pricing. In 2019, round-trip tickets soared to 1 million won ($760), but are now more affordable at around 400,000 won ($304).
More than half of the new international routes opened in May went to Ulaanbaatar, with Korean Air operating 19 flights per week, up from nine in 2019.
Airlines adjusted their flight schedules in July and August to accommodate peak summer demand.
T’way Airways launched a new route from Daegu to Ulaanbaatar and increased the number of flights on the Incheon-Ulaanbaatar route from three to four flights per week. Asiana Airlines increased Ulaanbaatar flights from four to five times a week, and Jeju Air increased the Incheon-Ulaanbaatar route to five times a week. The Mongolian route is considered to be one of the most promising routes in the aviation industry, and the data before the epidemic in 2018-2019 shows that the occupancy rate exceeds 90%.
The trend works both ways, with more and more Mongolians also traveling to South Korea.
Air Busan said: “Although the Mongolian route has aroused great interest among Korean millennials, especially Generation Z, many Mongolian students and workers have traditionally chosen this route.” More than half (52%) of the passengers held Mongolian passports.
Ulaanbaatar’s appeal is further enhanced by its resemblance to Dongtan City in South Korea’s Gyeonggi Province, earning it the nickname “Montan City” among Korean tourists. Ulaanbaatar has high-rise apartments and a range of Korean establishments, including hypermarkets, convenience stores and cafes.
South Korea is Mongolia’s fourth largest trading partner, according to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency (Kotra). In 2022, the bilateral trade volume between the two countries will reach 21.2 billion US dollars, with a trade surplus of 3.8 billion US dollars.
Backed by strong trade ties and growing personnel exchanges, South Korean companies are entering new markets. It is worth noting that Korean supermarkets and convenience stores are becoming the dominant players in the Mongolian retail industry.
In 2018, the convenience store chain CU entered the Shangri-La Hotel, Ulaanbaatar.
A CU spokesperson said: “Before our expansion, Mongolia did not have a mature convenience store system. Considering the growth potential, geographical proximity to Korea, and high interest and preference for K-pop and Korean culture, especially given the relatively low utilization rate of convenience stores. Young man Gao, we have decided to march into Mongolia.”
CU currently has over 70% market share and operates a network of over 330 stores in Mongolia. In addition, GS25, another company in the Korean convenience store field, has a total of 206 stores. South Korean supermarket chain Emart has taken a step forward by opening its third store in Ulaanbaatar.
Writer: Seo Ji-eun (firstname.lastname@example.org)