South Korean TV shows turn Croatia into tourist hotspot
Koreans finding love and adventure while travelling through Croatia in reality TV shows have put the Balkan country on the map, making it a popular tourist destination for the Asian market.
It all started in 2012 with the filming of the South Korean show Romantic, featuring Koreans in their 20s and 30s visiting Croatia’s hotspots, from the capital Zagreb to the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park and the Unesco World Heritage site Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast.
It became a perfect TV advertisement for visiting Croatia. “Eventually the romantic search of a group of young Koreans for love in several Croatian destinations became a great commercial for our tourism,” says the head of the national tourist board, Ratomir Ivicic. South Korean TV then produced another travel-reality show called Noonas Over Flowers – noonas meaning older sisters – in which several well-known Korean actresses backpacked their way through Croatia.
“It had a huge impact on the popularity of Croatia and in improving the knowledge of our country,” says Ivicic of the shows that aired in 2013-2014.
Last year, more than 252,000 South Koreans visited Croatia, about five times more than in 2012. “Noonas Over Flowers firmly put Croatia on the map for South Korean travellers,” says Cho Il-Sang, spokesman for the country’s top travel agency, Hana Tour.
The whole eastern-Europe region had been off limits for most South Korean travellers due to a lack of direct flights and short holidays.
“But the TV show changed all that ... Croatia is emerging as one of the most promising travel destinations for South Koreans who visit Europe,” Cho adds.
Tourism accounts for about 15 per cent of Croatia’s gross domestic product, about €7 billion (Dh28.79bn) annually. For the first nine months of 2014, official figures show tourism brought in €6.7bn or 2.5 per cent more than the same period a year earlier.
In 2014, Croatia welcomed more than 12 million visitors, triple the number of its 4.2 million inhabitants. Although tourists come mainly from Europe, Croatia has turned its attention to Asian markets also.
Late last year, tourism minister Dario Lorenzin visited China, Japan and South Korea to promote the industry.
Most Koreans stay for 12 days, also visiting neighbouring countries – Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovenia.
Park Do-hyeong heard about Croatia for the first time when he watched Romantic and became interested in the country. “People are kind, one feels safe and it is inexpensive,” says the 29-year-old about a recent visit to Zagreb.
Korean tourists have also spurred some new services in Croatia and more business ties between Zagreb and Seoul.
Last year, Kim Seoung-hoon opened a hostel for Koreans in the Croatian capital, the first one in the Balkans region. At the entrance to his Love Croatia hostel in downtown Zagreb there is a giant map on the wall pinned with destinations – all places featured in the reality shows. Guests in the 27-room facility are Koreans only. “This is a family-style hostel where people feel close, comfortable, and can eat a Korean meal,” says the 30-year-old owner.
The idea to start the business came when he watched the popular Korean TV shows. “I realised it was a really beautiful country,” says Kim. He also has ambitions to expand his Korean-only hostels to Split and Dubrovnik.
Other businesses also spotted opportunities stemming from product placement in the television shows.
Croatia’s Zagrebacka Pivovara brewery, which has about 45 per cent of the market, signed a deal in October with South Korea’s CKB to export a popular beer sipped by the stars of Noonas Over Flowers.
“We were swamped with emails from South Koreans interested in the Ožujsko beer,” says export manager Marko Turicic.
So why the fascination with this particular Balkan country?
Croatia was chosen for the TV shows because it was a destination not widely known in Korea and a place with “beautiful landscapes and cultural heritage”, according to producer Na Young-suk – the perfect backdrop for his Noonas Over Flowers.
Updated: March 2, 2015 04:00 AM