DestinationsVisitors staying for more than a day in Ulsan can receive financial support for travel expenses.

This city in South Korea will pay tour groups to visit

For groups of five or more tourists, the Ulsan government is giving out US$15 daily to subsidise accommodation.
For groups of five or more tourists, the Ulsan government is giving out US$15 daily to subsidise accommodation. Photo Credit: GettyImages/Sanga Park

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 review.

“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 Ulsan’s lead.

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 receive KRW100,000.

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