Over 1.1 million South Korean tourists and travelers—a record number—came to the United States in 2010, injecting more than $3.4 billion into the US economy, an increase in revenue of 30 per
cent over the previous year. Data released by the International Trade Commission shows that Korean visitors to the US last peaked in 2007 at 806,000, subsequently declining over the two following years partly as a result of the global financial crisis, before rebounding last year. In 2010, South Korea ranked as the eighth largest source of foreign visitors to the United States, above Australia, China and India.
Forty-two percent of Korean travelers to the US visited states on the Pacific West Coast, making the region the top destination for Koreans visitors. Both Hawai‘i and California tourism websites have Korean language pages to accommodate Korean visitors, and Hawai‘i has a physical tourism office located in Seoul. In Hawai‘i, for the first three quarters of this year, a reported 72,064 South Koreans visited the state, an increase of 23 per cent over the previous year, and partly offsetting a reduction in Japanese visitors. As a result of the increased number of Korean visitors to Hawai‘i over the past few years, the state now has specific programs that are directly targeted at the Korean tourist market including packages for honeymooners, luxury travelers and golfers. Korean visitors have increased the demand for Korean language tourist guides, who are sourced from the local Brigham Young University-Hawaii in Laie. Hawaiian Airlines started its first non-stop service between Honolulu and Seoul Incheon in January 2011, now operating four days a week. As a result of the growing number of Korean visitors to the United States, US retail merchants are now beginning to accept the Korean credit card, BC Global Card, which was launched in Korea in early 2011.
It is worth noting that in November 2008, South Korea joined 35 other countries who qualify for instant entry into the United States without a visa under the US Visa Waiver Program. Foreign citizens who qualify for this program are allowed to remain in the United States for up to 90 days for business and/or tourism. Following Korea’s inclusion in the Visa Waver Program, vacation packages in Hawai‘i are now marketed directly to Korean consumers on Korean television shopping programs. According to the Honolulu Advertiser, “Following the relaxation of visa restrictions in the fall of 2008 local tourism industry officials ramped up their marketing effort in South Korea, splashing images of Hawai’i across everything from TV to Web sites to bus stops.” Anecdotal evidence suggests that the Visa Waver Program is one reason why Korean tourists choose Hawai‘i as a destination, combined with the targeted marketing plan of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority and increased air transport links. No doubt the strong Korean economy—with current unemployment around 3 percent and GDP at almost 4 percent—is also a contributing factor.
The future of South Korea visitation to the United States is optimistic. The U.S. Travel Association reports that, “between 2000 and 2010, long-haul travel from South Korea increased by 47 percent, while travel from South Korea to the United States increased by 67 per cent.” Accordingly, the Office of Travels and Tourism Industriesforecasts that by 2016 there could be an estimated 1.7 million Korean visitors coming to the United States, an increase of 55 per cent in five years.
Adam Callahan, Project Assistant at the East-West Center, contributed research to this article.