International tourists back in Bulacan, but local folks flock to Korea

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CITY OF MALOLOS–Asian tourists particularly Chinese and Koreans have started to visit Bulacan again while many local residents would want to flock to Korea as they lined up to apply for visa to this country which already signifies the return of the vibrant and lively tourism between countries particularly within Asia and the Southeast Asia as the worldwide tourism reels from its collapse after the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.   

Evangeline Buenaventura, 51, owner of Manejkom Travel and Tours in this city and president of the 40 member and still counting Bulacan Association of Travel Agencies (BATA) said on phone on Sunday that Chinese and Korean tourists are now back in Bulacan’s nature resorts for water experiences, eco-tourism adventures, exploring Filipino culinary in native restaurants  and other local tourism destinations.

Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) Vice President James Lee in his “fighting” gesture during a light moment with media members following a brief press conference. Photo by Carmela Reyes-Estrope

Among their top destinations are this capital city of Bulacan, City of San Jose del Monte and Dona Remedios Trinidad (DRT) for fresh and pristine mountains and fresh air experience. The tourists also frequent the malls to go shopping, Buenaventura said. This trend has been on since the second quarter of 2023, she said.

“Because of the pandemic, international tourists have stopped coming to the country. Today, they have returned to the beaches in our country. Our province does not have beaches to offer but we do have resorts and they started coming back in the second quarter of this year. Many Chinese and Koreans are now going back again to Bulacan. They want the eco-tourism adventures in our resorts, to explore our food, visit historical places and go to malls for shopping”.  

Among the leading resort destinations, according to Bulacan provincial tourism officer Eliseo Dela Cruz, are the Lawiswis Kawayan Garden Resort and Spa in Calumpit town, My Cabin by Selah in Bustos town, Klir Water Park in Guiguinto.

However, Buenaventura said, the number of Koreans visiting the province is incomparable to the local folks who want to travel to Japan and Korea.

Lawiswis Kawayan Garden Resort and Spa in Calumpit, Bulacan which offers serene nature. Photo by Lawiswis Kawayan Garden Resort and Spa

For Korea alone, she said, Manejkom has catered to 50-80 Bulakenyo tourists a month since the second quarter of 2023 started.  

With 40 BATA members, she estimated that about 2,000-3,000 Bulakenyos wanted to travel to Korea every month.  However, this has caused a recent surge in the visa applications in the Korean Embassy. She said Korea was among the last countries which opened its border because of the pandemic restrictions.

“Medyo na-kontrol iyong pagpunta ng mga tourists from Bulacan or Filipino in general sa Korea dahil sa hirap ng pagkuha ng appointment sa visa applications sa Korean Embassy after the pandemic. Ang dami nilang backlog sa visa applicants.  Isa sila sa pinakahuling nag-open ng border,” (The coming in of Bulakenyo tourists or Filipino in general to Korea was somehow controlled because of the difficulties in getting appointments to apply for visa in Korean Embassy after the pandemic), she said.

But because of the Aug. 29 opening of the Korean Visa Application Center (KVAC) in Brittany Hotel in Bonifacio Global City, Buenaventura said the problem in the clogging of visa applicants among Bulakenyos and the rest of the Filipinos who wanted to tourists who wanted to go to Korea is now addressed.

She said Bulakenyos wanted to go to Korea because of the strong influence of the Korean drama, the K-Pop culture and the food. “Ang laki ng influence ng mga Korea Novela. Gusto nilang makita at mapuntahan ang mga lugar na nakikita sa movies,” (There is a big influence of the Korea Novela. They wanted to see the places where the drama movies were taken and shot), she said.  

Buenavenyura, who founded BATA in 2004 and which they are now celebrating their 19 years, said the Korean Novela, Korean Culture, K-Pop, and Korean food are big help to their industry because of the earnings they get. However, she refused to divulge the details of how much it costs to travel to Korea except that they are “not expensive”.

Hyung Joon Kim, Director of Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) Manila Office said in a press conference in Makati during the launching of the Korea “Meetings Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions (MICE) on Friday that the Korean government had put up and opened KVAC to finally resolve the visa clogging concerns of Filipinos who wanted to travel to their country especially during this year, as they launch the “Visit Korea 2023-2024 Year” with the theme, “Imagine Your Korea”.

The KTO Manila Office, a non-profit arm of the Korean national government launched in May 2012 to help promote Korea as a premier leisure, incentive, and medical travel destination for Philippine travelers.

More than 200 travel and tour agency officials and personnel attended the launch to personally hear the conference, travel, promotional packages Korea offers under the said Korea tourism projects. 

James Lee, Vice President of KTO said Korea launched “Visit Korea 2023-2024 Year” with the theme, “Imagine Your Korea” to help attract more Filipino and other international tourists to come to their country as one way of recovering from the devastating effects of the pandemic.

My Cabin by Selah
The nature experience in My Cabin by Selah in Bustos town. Photo by Anton Luis Catindig

In 2019, a year before the pandemic, Korea posted a 17-million record of international tourists but as the tourism in the world collapsed because of the pandemic, it slid down to 95 percent in 2020 and 2021. It only started to recover in 2022 with 5 million recorded tourists.

“Tourism industry all over the world suffered and struggled, especially Korea with a decrease of 95%. That’s why the new Korean President launched the 2023-2024 Visit Korea Year to boost our tourism. During the pandemic, K Pop music, K drama, and Korean culture have been promoted well. Thanks to Lee Min Ho’s dramas which highly promoted our country, but there is so much more we can offer and one can see and capture if they visit Korea,” he told the media through an interpreter.

Lee said there are 100 travel destinations and events to see in Korea and among the top 2 tourism destinations is the Blue House, or the Korean Palace, the former residence of the former president of their country.

For the past 70 years, it has been closed to the public but it was reopened in May last year as part of the tourism boost for the country. Around the Blue House are 10 big commercial establishments that offer first class  malls, food centers, parks and other leisure areas for tourists.      

According to Lee, as Koreans love the Philippines and also love to travel to the country, the two countries will celebrate its 75th year of friendship next year, they expect more Filipinos to travel to their country this year and in the coming years.

Before the pandemic, he said, there was an annual record of more than 500,000 Filipino tourists traveling to Korea.  

He added that the Philippines is the top country in SouthEast Asia that always visits Korea.

“We are expecting about 11 million international tourists to come to Korea this year, “ Lee said.

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