For Pyeongchang region, a golden opportunity in 2018

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Skiing in KoreaNow that South Korea has been named the host of the 2018 Winter Olympics, the Korea Tourism Organization is hoping that publicity building up to the sporting event seven years hence, along with associated infrastructure development, will spur foreign interest in, and visits to, the region surrounding host city Pyeongchang-eup.

Luis Maravi, spokesman at the KTO's New York-area office in Fort Lee, N.J., said that Pyeongchang county, set in the scenic Taebaek Mountains about 110 miles east of capital city Seoul, is South Korea's most popular outdoors-oriented getaway destination for domestic travelers. It might hold similar appeal for U.S. visitors, he added -- if only they were also in the know.

"This area is a year-round destination, a place for people who enjoy natural beauty to unwind," he said. "But it's one that in winter is also simply outstanding.

"The area is known as the 'Alps of Korea,' and if you want to engage in the fun of winter sports, that's where you head," added Maravi, noting the region is dotted with upscale ski resorts such as Alpensia, which will host several Olympic events as well as the opening and closing ceremonies.

"This is something we're really looking forward to highlighting for Americans as these Olympic Games approach."

The KTO has not yet formulated a U.S. marketing approach that incorporates South Korea's Winter Olympics coup. (Having beaten Germany and France in the bid for the 2018 Olympics, the country became only the second Asian country, after Japan, selected to host a winter Games.)

But Maravi estimated that "probably within the next year and a half, we'll begin a soft push, starting with the trade and slowly moving over to consumers."

Year-round appeal

As most U.S. visits take place from spring to fall, any such push will likely highlight the Pyeongchang region's year-round charms, he said, including its network of historical Buddhist monasteries, such as the seventh century Woljeongsa, participating in the KTO's popular Templestay program.

The tourism board launched the program in 2002 on the heels of another major sporting event, South Korea's co-hosting with Japan of the 2002 World Cup. Under Templestay, some 24 temples and monasteries offer cultural, active and spiritual programs, coupled with stays of one or two nights.

The buzz around the upcoming Olympics should help raise awareness of such tourism products, Maravi said. "It will allow for not only winter sports enthusiasts but the entire world to see parts of Korea that they've never seen before," he added, noting that some 80% of foreign visitors never venture outside the Seoul region.

Although the KTO said it has been tracking a steady increase in overall U.S. arrivals in recent years, posting 7% annual growth for the past five years, Maravi expects an even bigger pre-Olympics bump, as much as 20%, just prior to the Games.

"In 2010, we had more than 652,000 U.S. travelers coming ... and we don't see any indication of this trend ... of 7% year-over-year growth slowing down," he said. "As the Olympic year of 2018 gets closer, there will be a huge boost in arrivals."

In order to handle Olympic-related traffic, and any attendant increase in tourism, Korea is investing up to an estimated $20 billion over the next seven years in infrastructure, including a new high-speed rail line to Pyeongchang from Seoul.

"That investment will also mean more and more hotel rooms and better-quality infrastructure in general," Maravi said. "It will definitely have a long-lasting impact beyond just the Games themselves."

While the KTO is, unsurprisingly, confident the 2018 Games will aid tourism to South Korea, at least one other authority is equally upbeat. "The South Korean project will leave a tremendous legacy as Pyeongchang will become a new winter sports hub in Asia," said International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, at the announcement of Pyeongchang's selection.

For more, see www.visitkorea.or.kr.  

For destination news and updates worldwide, follow Ken Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly

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