Dr. Jaeyeon Choe discusses impact of COVID-19 on Korean travellers and emerging new trends during the lockdown, such as the growth of one month stays.
It is almost close to one calendar year since news of COVD-19 emerged, and since then words lockdown, pandemic and social distancing are household names. The word anthropause, in particular, has been used to describe the reduction in human mobility. When applied to the context of South Korea, we can see the country only welcomed 29,425 international tourists in April 2020, which was down 98.2 percent year-on-year from 1.63 million in 2019. This was due to travel restrictions, which includes a strict two week quarantine for international tourists. While those with a close family member or long term visa can quarantine in the place of their choosing (e.g., family home, Airbnb), those on short term visas without family connections must quarantine at designated hotels unless they have a proof of a direct family relationship in Korea.
Outbound travel has been as equally affected. In 2019, 28.7 million Korean travellers spent $34.5 billion abroad. Recognised for their purchasing power and love for leisure travel, there had been worries that Koreans might postpone all forms and types of travel. However, the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns have revitalised domestic tourism.
The primary reason is because South Korea never entered full lockdown. This allowed most businesses, such as hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions to remain open. The lockdown restrictions also pushed businesses to become more creative with ideas such as robot cafes, dark kitchens, dish washing robots and drive-through fish markets. Many processes also became efficient hospitality delivery services. In Seoul, you can get fresh croissants and a cup of hot coffee delivered to your door at 5am. The government has also supported domestic tourism through stimulus funding and programmes such as ‘special travel week’, which was halted in late August 2020 after cases rise. Mass testing combined with contactless payment systems and advanced technologies such as camera temperature checks and QR code check-ins also helped encourage domestic tourism.
Given the domestic and international perception that the country has managed the virus relatively well, the number of domestic tourists visiting South Korea’s southernmost resort island of Jeju increased year on year (2019/2020) during the summer holiday season. Other parts of the country and especially rural areas also had better business during the lockdowns in comparison to pre-COVID. Whilst domestic tourism had long been concentrated in Jeju Island and Gangwon province, the pandemic and outbound travel restrictions helped diversify domestic tourism destinations and extend the tourism season to a year round affair, supported by mass media such as TV shows showing unexplored domestic tourism destinations.
Affordable activities that facilitate social distancing, such as car camping, recreational vehicles, glamping and camping trips have been increasingly popular whilst the ‘one month stay’ travel trend continues to grow.
‘One Month Stay’
The One month stay experience has attracted a wide range of domestic tourists. Whether it is staying alone in a private villa/apartment in remote areas, Airbnb, pension or sharing a guesthouse with others, travel and tourism analysts have identified staying at one area for one month (alone or with family) was already gaining popularity among young Koreans before the pandemic. However, it has taken on new dimensions during the pandemic lockdowns and remains a resilient trend.
As the ‘one month stay’ trend continues, many provinces, local authorities and businesses outside Jeju Island are trying to exploit the trend by promoting unique and comfortable one month stay friendly facilities. Local villages are trying to re-develop their own unique accommodation type including traditional ‘Hanok’ (Korean traditional house) style accommodations. Interestingly, Airbnb partnered with a local village called ‘Hadong,’ which is known for its tea plantations, natural beauty and traditional ‘Hanok’ homes, so as to promote local stays.
The motives are wide ranging. Many people are choosing the option because they are tired of working from home, and being stuck in the same environment and routine. Given there is no light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, many don’t see a resumption of outbound travel until 2022. As many people had little opportunity to use their vacation days in 2020-2021 or are not optimistic about foreign travel anytime soon, they are grasping the opportunity to travel domestically and work remotely. After a blog and newspaper analysis, I found some of them believe they can be more productive and concentrate on work while staying alone in a remote place away from home. Many were also using this one month stay away as a coping strategy, and dealing with ‘Corona Blues’.
A blogger who is in early 30s and female, wrote that she just left a job and moved to Jeju for one month. By having conversations with other people at a guest-house, she got inspired to have a dream again, and never want to go back to the previous lifestyle where she worked till late night multiple times a week. She decided to re-visit her dream job, passion and talent while spending the whole month just for herself. She wrote, “I will examine job opportunities carefully while taking some time off here, until I find a job that I love and I am good at.”
Many of the blogs indicate that people are staying near beach locations in Jeju Island, where social distancing is easy and the environment relaxing. They often look for unique and fun interior designs, or unique environments, such as the Swiss village where the whole accommodation complex looks like a Swiss town.
I found the travellers enjoy Jeju’s local food and coffee shops, but also home cook. While some work remotely from full time jobs in Seoul, others are between jobs. Some are freelancers and can work remotely due to the pandemic. Other than coffee shops and local food, they enjoy daily nature walks, and activities such as hiking and yoga. They generally enjoy the slow pace of life, and social and spatial distance from others. However, they don’t seek isolation.
Urban 'One Month Stay' among Commuters:
Urban locations have also sought to jump on this trend by, offering large discounts for ‘one month stays’. Many of these 4 star hotels are in central and desirable districts in Seoul. They recognise that many people can’t afford to travel to the country side (time-wise), but would like to work in their own private space, try different foods and enjoy a new environment close to their place of work. Most people working in central Seoul commute, which takes on average 135 minutes per day. Given the pandemic, the atmosphere on the roads, buses and subway can be quite grim. An increasing numbers of commuters have chosen to stay in hotels in Seoul for a one month stay to remove the stressful commute from their daily lives. Some of those who choose this option commented on their blogs that they are very happy they don’t have to commute every day, keep masks on and live with the fear of being exposed to COVID-19. A blogger wrote that she enjoys the relaxing breakfast instead of commuting for 1.5 hours in the morning. She also commented that since she can’t travel abroad now, $2000 for a month staying in hotel is totally worth it. Another female blogger in her 30s also commented, "I love this [one month stay] because my room is cleaned daily, and I feel like I am traveling whenever I come back home (the hotel) from work!" Some hotels even offer small-scale networking events where they meet other guests in the evening for a drink. This was a unique selling point for some hotels as they seek to attract single commuters.
There is no doubt that it is definitely a difficult time for all. However, there are also new opportunities for tourism and hospitality businesses if they are able to exploit new trends and niches. As 2021 doesn’t look so positive for international travel, this ‘one month stay’ trend will continue in Korea. Destinations and tourism businesses should further explore the motivations, behaviour and preferences of those choosing this form of experience, and the particular niches within the segment itself. For example, there is room for more various accommodation types, programmes and services for budget travellers/commuters, so as to widen the potential audience for this kind of experience.