According to Bradley Brennan, business development manager for Sita World Tours, Korea's problem as a destination isn't lack of recognition but rather a lack of branding.
"If you talk about China, people know the Great Wall," he said. "Korea is a destination that is just on the outskirts of people's radar."
Sita World Tours is making an effort to change that and educate agents about Korea. Earlier this month, the Encino, Calif.-based tour operator hosted a seminar on the destination in Rolling Meadows, Ill., for agents based in the Midwest.
The event was co-sponsored by the Korea Tourism Organization and Asiana Airlines, and Brennan was hoping that his very personal relationship with the country would help bring to light its potential as a travel destination.
Brennan originally went to Korea to teach English for a year but "fell in love with the country, met a Korean girl" and ended up living in Korea for seven years, during which he also worked for the Korea Tourism Organization.
Consequently, he knows a lot about the country and what it has to offer.
"Everybody knows about Seoul," Brennan said. But he is hoping to broaden agents' understanding of the product offering by telling them about lesser-known destinations such as the historical city of Gyeongju and the semitropical island of Jeju off the southern tip of the country.
"Korea's the only country where you can have 5,000 years of history and the ultramodern. I'm from Tacoma, Wash., and when I was living in Korea, people were using their cellphones to swipe on the bus to pay. When I got a phone [in Korea], every year when I came home to visit, my phone was half the size of everyone else's," Brennan recalled.
And even when it comes to Seoul, there's a lot that people don't realize about the vibrant capital.
"South Korea is the size of Indiana. Indiana has [a population of 6.4] million people, South Korea has 48.5 million. And a quarter of those people live in Seoul," Brennan said.
The country also has strong ties to the U.S., through history, culture and immigration. For one, said Brennan, here in the U.S., "Korean food is becoming more and more popular. Nowadays everyone has had Korean barbecue. It's a great way to learn about a destination."
As Korean culture continues to be exported to the U.S., the destination is seeing a slow and steady pickup in interest, Brennan said.
"Korea is an up-and-coming destination," he said. "More and more media are talking about Korea."
And he said that consequently, Sita has managed to increase its bookings to Korea each year.
"A lot of tour operators don't sell or promote Korea," Brennan said. "But we've been actively doing that, and we've had great results."
Additionally, following the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Brennan said he's had customers look to China as well as Korea as alternative destinations to Japan.