Yeoh Siew Hoon
Yeoh Siew Hoon

I know it sounds like I am starved for recognition, but it always gives me a small buzz when I hand my Malaysian passport to the immigration officer at Incheon Airport in Seoul and the little machine in front of her greets me in my native language. Definitely warmer than the welcomes you get from humans at most airports.

In an age when they are talking about kissing over the internet, even having sex with robots and how marriages with robots could be legal before 2050, any form of human intimacy established through robotics now should be viewed as the harbingers of change they are.

And if there's one country that epitomizes change in hyperdrive, it's South Korea.

Singapore in lockdown during the Trump-Kim summit.
Singapore in lockdown during the Trump-Kim summit. Photo Credit: Siew Hoon Yeoh

My timing also couldn't be better. I landed in Seoul on Sunday, two days before the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-Un summit was due to be held in Singapore -- the first time a sitting American head of state had met with a North Korean leader -- and if there's one place that has the most at stake from any outcome of those talks, it's South Korea.

On the taxi ride to the hotel, the driver was listening to the radio, and although I couldn't understand what was being said, I could understand the words "Trump" and "Kim." My Seoul friends were clearly excited about the summit, having lived with tension and hostile relations for more than 70 years since Korea was divided. Everyone dreams of peace and a time when families can be reunited.

Not that any of them are holding their breath for it to happen anytime soon. The outcome of the summit seems rather vague and devoid of much other than a lot of photos. But still, it doesn't stop South Koreans from hoping and speculating about what could happen.

The possibilities for tourism would be immense of course. The two Koreas combined would mean a market of approximately 80 million people, and that would surely be good news for the hypergrowth that's set to happen on the low-cost carrier (LCC) front.

I was attending the North Asia LCC Summit, organized by the CAPA Centre for Aviation, and heard local aviation leaders acknowledging how good it would be for tourism and for rebuilding peace and understanding between the two nations.

Jong Gu Choi, CEO of Eastar Jet, who traveled to Pyongyang in 2015, said, "North Korea will open its skies before its land. If that happens, it means that instead of taking 55 minutes to fly to Pyongyang via the West Sea, it would take 20 minutes over the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). It will also open the Russian and Chinese markets, as well."

Seoul today is a very different place from what it used to be, say, 10 years ago. K-everything, from cosmetics to pop and drama, has taken over the world. I have friends in New York who are hooked on Korean dramas like "Descendants of the Sun." In May, K-pop band BTS' album, "Love Yourself: Tear," debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, the first time an album sung predominantly in a language other than English had topped that chart in 12 years.

At Soigne, executive chef Jun Lee blends French and Korean influences to create mouth-watering dishes such as these.
At Soigne, executive chef Jun Lee blends French and Korean influences to create mouth-watering dishes such as these. Photo Credit: Siew Hoon Yeoh

Korean cuisine is getting a fresh interpretation by local chefs. At Soigne, executive chef Jun Lee is blending Korean and French cuisine to create one of the best meals I've ever had anywhere. The menu changes every three months, depending on seasonal ingredients.

I also tried Mishmash, a cafe run by Korean-Danish chef Minzi Kim Wind, who blends influences to create dishes such as Danish roast pork with kimchi marmalade.

Young chefs like these are out to prove to travelers that cuisine in South Korea goes beyond the usual bibimbap, bulgogi and barbecue, and I, for one, am the happier for it.

Meantime, South Koreans are not waiting for the "wall" to come down. Instead, they are building bridges to the outside world. The big news in the industry is the hypergrowth being seen in outbound travel. In 2017, the outbound market grew by 22%, to reach 24.8 million. Of that total, more than 7 million traveled to Japan, a 40% increase over the previous year.

Low-cost carriers have helped drive this growth. The first South Korean low-cost carrier was launched in 2005. There are now six LCCs, and the number of passengers flown has grown from 40 million to 100 million a year. Five new LCCs are pending regulatory approval, among them Air Daegu, Air Phillip and Premia Air, which plans to be the country's first dedicated low-cost, long-haul by 2020.

Already, the incumbents feel that six is too many and are bracing for the increased competition. The travel trade, meanwhile, is bracing for more growth, expecting that low fares, especially on long-haul flights, will stimulate even more appetite for destinations in the U.S., such as Honolulu, Las Vegas and the West Coast.

Eastar Jet’s Jong Gu Choi (second from left) believes North Korea will open its skies first before its land borders in the event of any reunification.
Eastar Jet’s Jong Gu Choi (second from left) believes North Korea will open its skies first before its land borders in the event of any reunification. Photo Credit: Siew Hoon Yeoh

Jin Air was the first low-cost carrier in South Korea to go long-haul, flying to Honolulu and Cairns, Australia. T'way has also announced its vision of flying long-haul routes by 2020, aspiring to achieve 25 million passengers by 2025.

"The short-haul market is saturated," said Hyung Yi Kim, Jin Air's executive vice president. "Our goal is to become a company that can go beyond Asia, to North America, Europe and South America by 2025."

Premia Air, whose mission is to offer "premier [long-haul] service at low cost," has started raising funds from private equity and institutional investors.
CEO Jong Chul Kim, known for turning Jeju Air around, said Premia would start with three aircraft (either Boeing 787s or Airbus A320neos) and fly within the six- to 10-hour range. It will offer two classes, and its economy seats will offer a 35-inch pitch.

"Korea travelers who want to travel more than five hours emphasize comfort over price," Kim said.

There are 19 airports in South Korea, and the Korea Airports Corp. is working to improve airport infrastructure and develop Gimpo Airport into a global hub.

Kim said prospects for low-cost, long-haul travel are promising.

"In 2016, about 20 million Koreans traveled, and only 13% flew more than five hours," he said. "In 2017, 17 million Japanese traveled abroad, and 44% of those flew more than five hours. Korea's per-capita GDP is reaching $30,000, and that's the point at which economists say travel will grow exponentially.

"With the right product and right service, the market should grow," Kim said.

Japan Airlines (JAL) has also announced plans to set up a low-cost, long-haul subsidiary by 2020, and while details weren't forthcoming (with its name still under wraps), Hiroyuki Uehara, JAL's vice president for strategy development, said it would fly in the range of the 777s. It is also in talks with American Airlines, with which JAL has a partnership, to determine the implications of this new venture.

The low-cost carrier sector is on fire across the Asia-Pacific region, which accounts for 50% of the world's LCC aircraft orders and 60% of the 112 LCCs in the world.

Peter Harbison, executive chairman of CAPA, predicted, "We will see fierce competition, high growth and consolidation or exits."

With new technology making it possible to fly long-haul with lower unit costs, new city pairs are being created, and the number of city pairs has doubled in 20 years, exceeding 20,000 in 2017 for the first time, according to CAPA.

So, ladies and gentlemen, fasten your seat belts. We're set for what promises to be another golden era in aviation for travelers in Asia, and marketing operations like Brand USA can only benefit from the growth.

Another destination that will benefit from the attention the Trump-Kim summit got is Singapore.

Talk about good timing. Last year, the number of Koreans visiting Singapore rose 11%, and hoteliers are expecting strong growth again this year.

Tour operators in Seoul are said to be pushing Singapore packages in the aftermath of the summit.

So even if the summit doesn't give us peace immediately, we can say that at least it gave Singapore a chance to shine in the global spotlight and boost its image and tourism.


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