In 2019, South Korea was riding high, hosting a record 17.5 million
foreign tourists. Then the pandemic hit, with last year seeing less than
one million international visits. What will it take for the country’s
travel industry to rebound?
For one city, the solution is handing out cash.
Ulsan, a southeastern city tucked between historic Gyeongju and
bustling Busan, is working to bolster group tourism by offering
financial support. The city wants to coax people to stay for more than
just a day and to visit on weekdays rather than just over the weekend.
Launched in July 2020, the scheme was tweaked this past May. For
groups of five or more international tourists, the Ulsan Metropolitan
Government is helping with accommodation costs by paying out KRW20,000
(US$15) per person daily, for up to three days. The city is also
offering KRW300,000 (US$228) per day for tour buses carrying 16 to 19
tourists and KRW350,000 (US$267) for buses carting around 20 or more.
Rounding out the monetary perks is compensation for half the cost of
various activities and experience programmes within Ulsan. To receive
the money, travel agencies must submit a tour plan to Ulsan Tourism for
“As many requests are coming in right now, the budget is pretty
tight,” said Yang So-jin, the manager at Ulsan Tourism Association. “We
expect that the budget for this program will be exhausted by October.”
For now, the city’s incentives are targeted towards Korean travel
agencies. To apply, a form must be completed and submitted. The Korean
document can be downloaded from the websites for each Ulsan district.
Best known as the beating heart of Korean industry, Ulsan is the site
of Hyundai Motors Ulsan Plant, which churns out more cars each year
than any other such factory (one every 10 seconds). The plant offers
free guided tours. The city is also home ground for South Korea’s
massive shipbuilding industry.
But Ulsan is not just an industrial town. Affluent and modern, the
city boasts a central park — Taehwa River Grand Park — with charming
night views and the sandy beaches of Jinha and Ilsan. The area’s gems,
though, are the 1,000m peaks on the western city limits known as the
Yeongnam Alps. Hordes of people hike up to the ridges to stroll through
fields of silver grass in the fall.
The rural part of Ulsan near the city’s high-speed train station is known for its high-quality beef, and a local specialty is eonyang bulgogi,
thin slices of beef mixed with seasonings. On the cultural front, the
area boasts the Bangudae Petroglyphs, ancient markings on a streamside
cliff that depict history’s first instance of whale fishing.
“In 2018 and 2019 we saw quite a few international visitors,” says
Yang. “Groups of 100 or more members visited for business purposes. Now,
instead of these big groups, we’re seeing visits from foreigners living
in Korea or just individual foreign tourists.”
A large number of Hyundai Motor's foreign employees visited in 2019,
adds Jo Min-ho, manager at the Department of Tourism Promotion in
Ulsan’s Buk-gu (North District).
The Korea Association of Travel Agencies has compiled a list of
dozens of other South Korean cities and counties that are following
One is the city of Daejeon, famous for its hot spring district and as
a science and technology hub. Since 21 June, Daejeon has begun offering
KRW5,000 per person for groups of five or more that visit one
restaurant and one attraction. And it’s matching Ulsan’s accommodation
deal for those who stay two nights.
Meanwhile, in the central, mountain-encircled city of Danyang, groups
who visit local attractions and upload shots on social media can