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After New Zealand, could South Korea be next for an Australian travel bubble?

People walk through the Myeongdong shopping district in Seoul on August 27, 2020. Source: Getty

Following an announcement that Australians will soon be able to travel quarantine free to New Zealand, there are hopes that a similar travel bubble will be established with South Korea.

There are renewed hopes that Australia’s international tourism industry, which has remained largely stagnant during the COVID-19 pandemic, may resume in the second half of 2021 as vaccinations are distributed to large sections of the population. 

On Tuesday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that a two-way travel bubble with Australia would commence on April 19.

The move comes as the Morrison government and health authorities explore plans to establish a bubble with Singapore, and after Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack revealed in March that South Korea and Japan could follow. 

The establishment of a travel bubble with South Korea would signal a much-needed shot in the arm for the sector, says Lee In-sook, head of Seoul-run Korea Tourism Organization’s Sydney office.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced the starting date for a two-way travel bubble with Australia.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced the starting date for a two-way travel bubble with Australia.
Phil Walter/Getty Images

She tells SBS Korean the establishment of a bubble between both countries would not only benefit Australians heading to the Asian country but would also lead to economic growth for Australia as more Korean tourists arrive. 

South Korea experienced a steady increase in the number of tourists arriving in the country before the pandemic hit, Ms Lee affirms, thanks in part to the ‘Korean Wave’, which is defined as the rise in the global popularity of the country’s cultural economy. 

However, like most countries, the numbers plummeted in 2020.  

“Last year, the number of Korean tourists dropped 85 per cent year-on-year and [we] had the most difficult time,” Ms Lee says. 

“Travel sales in South Korea fell 7 trillion won (AUD$8.1 billion) to 1 trillion won (AUD$1.1 billion) in 2020, compared to 8 trillion won (AUD$9.3 billion) in 2019, and about 30 per cent of registered travel agencies reported closure."

People wear masks walk along the Yeongdeungpo entertainment district on May 11, 2020 in Seoul.

In 2019, more than 170,000 Australians visited South Korea and Ms Lee confirms that the number had been on the rise in the years preceding. 

However, she affirms that Korea's share of the overall overseas travel market in Australia remains “low” compared to other countries.

When asked about the potential for a Korean bubble, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade referred SBS to comments made by Foreign Minister Marise Payne on April 6 that there are "ongoing discussions" with the chief medical officer and the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee about "what countries are possible".

Ms Payne told 2GB that following New Zealand, "there are countries in Southeast Asia who will also be very keen" for a travel bubble, and she is "hearing a lot from my colleague foreign ministers around the region on these matters".

'Digital transformation' in the pandemic era 

Ms Lee says that South Korea is undergoing a "digital transformation" in the way that the country is promoted overseas during the pandemic. 

"We have been preparing for many overseas tourists to visit Korea after COVID-19 by expanding digital marketing using new media such as online fairs, online international conferences, social networks and YouTube.

"As a case in point, the 'Feel the Rhythm of Korea' video campaign, which started at the end of July last year, has gained explosive popularity abroad and has revealed the charm of Korean tourism to the world.

“Videos were produced for seven major tourist destinations, including Seoul and Busan, and the total number of YouTube views currently exceeds 600 million.

This video also ranked fourth on the list of most-viewed YouTube videos by Australians in 2020.

She says the breakdown of Australians who perceive Korea as a tourist destination is “not very high”, at three out of every ten people.

However, she recognises that digital platforms like Netflix have contributed to the continuing spread of the ‘Korean Wave’ globally during the pandemic.

The Korean Tourism Organization in Sydney is planning various online and offline events in preparation for what is expected to be a growing number of Australians visiting Korea.

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