The rise of K-pop and global medical tourism have worked out nicely for South Korea. But the country’s go-go days as a tourist destination could be over soon. Korea’s currency has been strengthening—the won recently reached a six-year high against the US dollar—and unfavorable exchange rates are expected to keep Chinese tourists, who accounted for 35.5% of the country’s visitors last year, away. Meanwhile, rising political tensions with Japan already have trimmed tourism from there, by about 22% in 2013.
That’s why it is all the more surprising that Korea’s new top tourism officials are an entertainer and a professor with no experience in tourism. Johnny Yune, an actor and comedian, got his big break when he appeared on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in in the 1980s. Byun Chu-seok is a former visual design professor at Kookmin University. The two were appointed inspector and president, respectively, of the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO), with Yune appointed in August and Byun in April.
They are not unimportant jobs: Travel and tourism last year directly and indirectly accounted for 5.8% of GDP and 1.58 million jobs, or 6.3% of total employment, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.
While Yune and Byun have little tourism experience, they do have political connections. Yune headed up the overseas campaign teams for South Korean president Park Geun-hye’s 2012 election, while Byun headed the campaign’s media promotions. Lately, the KTO’s labor union members have been critical of Yune and Byun, and of Park, calling the appointments a sign that Korea’s government is giving executive positions in public enterprises as a reward to political connections.
Making things even more challenging, the KTO ran a 20 billion won ($19.2 million) deficit last year.