By Kim Eun-jung
SONGDO, South Korea, June 9 (Yonhap) -- A growing number of foreigners have visited South Korea for travels related to meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) over the past year, having a ripple effect across the nation's tourism industry, the state-run Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) said Thursday.
South Korea has become a major incentive travel destination in Asia as its vibrant culture and advanced technology have attracted more travelers from various nations.
The KTO said a series of big incentive tours by major Asian companies have boosted the MICE market, proving the high potential of the rising tourism segment.
The trend is expected to continue this year as several companies from China and Southeast Asian nations showed keen interest in bringing high-performing employees to South Korea as part of the reward program during an exhibition.
This year, the tourism agency held "Korea MICE Expo 2016" in Songdo, west of Seoul, in which 260 organizations from home and abroad and 178 buyers from 19 nations participated to discuss business opportunities and share information.
"This expo will provide a good opportunity to introduce Korea's MICE industry to the world," Kwak Sang-seop, a KTO official in charge of incentive tours, said. "We will support the provincial governments' efforts to attract more travelers and bridge them with overseas buyers to promote Korea's image as an attractive incentive tour destination."
The two-day event that began Thursday included a promotional booth by provincial governments and major convention centers to introduce a wide range of meeting places and tourism destinations.
During the seminars on Friday, industry officials and experts will discuss ways to combine the MICE industry with the sharing economy and big data to better connect people and develop customized programs.
This year's event invited Chinese MICE officials to encourage more companies to send their workers to South Korea, which has become a hot tourism destination thanks to popular Korean dramas and celebrities.
Bonn Lim, a deputy manager for agency trips management deputy manager Prudential Assurance Malaysia Berhad, said the event was useful in getting more information on the upcoming incentive tour program.
The insurance company based in Kuala Lumpur will send about three groups of 1,000 employees to South Korea in September for sightseeing.
"Young employees especially prefer South Korea because they love Korean dramas and want to buy cosmetics and clothes," Lim told Yonhap News. "Seoul is their top pick for shopping and entertainment, while Jeju Island is also popular as a resort island place."
She said incentive tours are very popular and effective tools to motivate employees to post better performances, saying Prudential is considering more of the programs.
"Because employees can bring their friends or families to share their experiences here, incentive tours are really popular among employees," Lim said.
Factory inspections and leisure tours are popular programs among company and government officials.
Lucksanne Jeng, the chief of Journey Land, a tour agency based in Bangkok, said she has organized several group tours to offer hands-on experiences in such areas as advanced IT and infrastructure in Asia's fourth-largest economy.
For her clients living in a tropical climate, winter is the peak season for sports activities such as skiing and ice fishing in Gangwon Province.
Her tour agency plans to bring a big group tour for a Thai insurance agency in December, which will include skiing and other winter sports in PyeongChang, the venue for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
"We organized an ice fishing trip to Hwacheon in Gangwon Province last year and it was a big success. They loved it because they cannot experience such activities in Thailand," said Jeng, who has specialized in Korean tour programs over the past decade.
Among the latest trend is visiting the filming sites of the popular drama "Descendants of the Sun," which aired simultaneously in South Korea and China from February and April. The KBS drama is now on air in Thailand and is enjoying massive popularity.
"Many have asked for information on how to visit the sites, including former military camps, coffee shops and restaurants, which appeared in the drama," she said, proudly showing photos of heartthrob actor Song Joong-ki on her personal blog. "We are organizing several themed trips later this year."
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