Australia travel bubbles: South Korea could be the next big thing for Aussie travellers

When Insook Lee arrived in a pre-pandemic Australia in February, tasked with enticing Australian tourists to visit her native South Korea, she couldn't have conceived that she, let alone her target market, would be going precisely nowhere overseas this year.

Despite the fact that national tourism marketing agencies are withdrawing their offices from Australia, with Germany the most recent example, Ms Lee, the director of the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) in Sydney, has a sound reason to stay put.

South Korea, after all, was recently mentioned by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as one of less than a handful of Asian nations, including Japan and Singapore, with which Australia has been discussing the concept of travel bubbles.

South Korea, with a population of 51 million, is considered one of the world's most successful nations in suppressing the spread of COVID-19. Although it's still recording positive cases of around 100 per day - a low figure relative to its population - it's suffered about half as many deaths from the virus as Australia.

"A travel bubble will definitely be a great opportunity for South Korea," says Ms Lee, 46. "The news on the potential travel bubble has raised interest and attention among Australians about South Korea and we are receiving more consumer inquiries about potential travel plans to our country.

"But the problem is, Australians don't know about all the things you can see and do in South Korea, our rich culture and heritage, our beautiful natural attractions – you can ski in winter, enjoy beautiful cherry blossoms in spring, the colourful autumnal leaves or even surf our beaches – and the food."

Before COVID-19, nearly 175,000 Australians visited South Korea in 2019 - an increase of almost 14 per cent - with, in turn, more than 300,000 Koreans visiting Australia.

In contrast, more than 500,000 Australians visit Japan annually. However, far from being a competitor, Ms Lee sees potential for Korea and Japan to partner in attracting Australians to the two countries.

But in the short term, despite enthusiasm surrounding the laying of such human bridges, bubbles are proving difficult to initiate, as evidenced by the trans-Tasman equivalent.

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"As KTO is not directly involved in the travel bubble talks between the two governments, we cannot predict the future in terms of vaccines or second waves," Ms Lee says. "But I am hoping that [a travel bubble between Australia and South Korea] will be launched early next year."

In the meantime, Ms Lee and her family, namely husband, Chris Yoo, 47 and children Alicia, 11 and son Andy, 8, are enjoying life in their newly adopted seaside Sydney home. It's a far cry from the dynamic, though landlocked, South Korean capital of Seoul.

"My husband and our kids have taken up surfing here and now they're surfing almost every day," says Ms Lee. "During the lockdown period our family felt that we are really lucky to live in Bondi Beach as we can go out for a walk and enjoy the beautiful scenery."

Anthony Dennis is Traveller editor.

MY BRILLIANT KOREA: INSOOK LEE'S TOP FIVE EXPERIENCES

TAKE OFF ON A CYCLING ADVENTURE

Cycling is a popular activity in Korea thanks to well-constructed bike paths throughout the whole nation. There are now a total of 12 cross-country bike paths totalling 1853 kilometres.

VISIT AN EXOTIC ISLAND

Jeju Island is my favourite destination in Korea. It's located in the southernmost region and it's only about a one-hour flight from Seoul. It has unique nature and landscapes compared to the Korean Peninsula.

WANDER A TRADITIONAL KOREAN MARKET

Traditional Korean markets are great places to experience the kindness, passion, and energy of Koreans. They also provide visitors a diverse shopping experience full of Korea's unique tastes and fashions.

HEAL THYSELF IN A WELLNESS RESORT

Healience Seonmaeul Wellness Healing Resort is one of my favourite places. "Healience" is the word consisting of healing and science and the resort is focused on "well-ageing" instead of "anti-ageing".

EXPLORE A TRADITIONAL CULTURE VILLAGE

Busan is the second largest city and can be reached from Seoul by high-speed train in less than three hours. Busan is home to the Gamcheon Culture Village, created in the 1950s by Korean War refugees.

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