There’s plenty of buzz about Chinese tourists flocking to Paris for luxury goods, buying up real estate in the US, and emptying grocery store shelves in Australia and New Zealand for baby formula. But according to a ranking compiled by the research firm Euromonitor International, the top tourist destinations for wealthy Chinese are a bit closer to home—Hong Kong, Macau, and South Korea.
Hong Kong and Macau have long been top destinations because of their proximity to the mainland, the language overlap and their close ties with China, but South Korea is a different story. The two countries are often at odds over North Korea, an ally of China’s that is still technically at war with South Korea. Not many South Koreans speak Mandarin and few Chinese speak Korean. Yet, for a second year in a row in Euromonitor’s ranking, South Korea attracted more Chinese visitors than other Asian destinations popular among mainlanders, like Singapore, Taiwan, and Thailand, or western ones like the US, France, Australia, or the UK.
So what’s drawing Chinese tourists to the Republic of Korea? Perhaps an admiration for the established, wealthy urban lifestyle of another East Asian country (think PSY’s song “Gangnam Style,” which took off among image-conscious Chinese youth). ”Chinese look up to South Korea for its sophisticated urban culture, style and beauty,” Song Sung-uk, professor of South Korean culture studies at the Catholic University of Korea in Seoul said in August.
South Korea has ramped up efforts to woo Chinese tourists over the last year, among other things by lightening visa requirements, as Japanese tourism into the country has dwindled because of a weakening yen. The number of Chinese tourists to South Korea rose 40% in the first quarter of this year, more than any other group, according to Korea’s tourism ministry. More Chinese are coming for weekend of shopping; many come to take their wedding photos in the country’s more fashionable photography studios. According to Korea’s tourism ministry, over 2.5 million Chinese tourists spent on average $2,150 a person last year—more than any other nationality visiting the country.