South Korea Works to Embrace Wellness Tourism 2021-12-09T18:27:18+00:00

South Korea Works to Embrace Wellness Tourism

Professor Jin of South Korea says Wellness Tourism may have more long-term potential than Medical Tourism.   

by Anne Dimon

It’s not the first geographic destination of the world that comes to mind when one thinks “wellness travel” but South Korea’s government officials decided back in 2015 that they wanted to be part of the Wellness Tourism industry, and earlier this year the City of Seoul launched an extensive guide to showcase their wellness-focused assets and amenities.

One person helping steer the initiative is Ki Nam Jin, Ph.D. a professor in the Division of Health Administration at Yonsei University. Mirae campus, and Chairman of Seoul Medical Tourism Council. Earlier this year, Professor Jin presented “The role of local government in developing the post-COVID medical-wellness tourism market,” at the International Medical Tourism Forum in South Korea.

Cheonjiyeon Waterfall
Cheonjiyeon Waterfall on Jeju Island courtesy of

In a recent interview (via Zoom), Professor Jin tells me that he has worked with the government of South Korea to develop Medical Tourism since 2009 when lawmakers decided to “let’s globalize our health care.”  He says “many ministries were involved in developing the medical tourism industry, targeting potential patients from neighboring countries including China, Russia and Japan, and with the main facilities being local hospitals. In 2019, the country documented just over 497,000 visitors who cited “medical” as the prime reason for the visit.

Medical Tourism, he says, was the main focus because “they (government officials) didn’t understand the wellness concept.” The professor explained it to them by pointing out that Wellness Tourism could cover a wider range of visitors while embracing settings other than hospitals. 

The Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism officially adopted the policy to develop Wellness Tourism in 2016. The overriding rationale for the decision was that “a labor-intensive market can lead to more jobs,” he said. Government officials “realized it could be the next growth engine for the economy.”  Professor Jin, who has delivered numerous presentations to South Korean government officials and at medical conferences and summits both in South Korea and elsewhere, believes that “as wellness tourism is a more proactive and broader concept, it may have more long-term potential than medical tourism.”  But the problem,” according to Jin, “was to understand the boundaries and identify the stakeholders.” For instance, the South Korean take on Wellness Tourism incorporates dermatological clinics and beauty-related skincare shops. “In South Korea, beauty is the main focus and is deemed necessary for upward mobility,” he says.  From a macro perspective, a prime focus on “beauty” is not generally included when one talks about a destination management organization’s Wellness Tourism initiative.

Each year, since 2017, the federal government has allocated the equivalent of $1 million U.S. to local governments to identify and help develop the country’s lesser-known services and facilities. “Various provinces,” says Professor Jin, “have different wellness assets including nature, skincare facilities, tea houses, and temple stay programs.” Once the specific areas of the country have been identified for the allocation of funds, a team of wellness advisors (including Jin) visits each area to provide expertise as needed.

In 2020, the City of Seoul identified 70 wellness tourism assets including Healing Cafes (where patrons can sit in massage chairs while enjoying a beverage), Temple Stays (to learn about healthy living), Forest Healing, Traditional & Complementary Medicine, Oriental Medicine (including acupuncture for beauty and weight loss programs) and Healing Roads.

A new and comprehensive 139-page digital guide promoting wellness travel in Seoul centers on five themes: Beauty & Spa, Healthy Foods, Fitness & Yoga, Nature & Green Therapy, and Healing & Meditation, and identifies 70 spots that fit these themes. Included in the 70 are 10 routes that align with particular travel styles and potential motivations including Oriental Therapy, A Foodie’s Journey, For Family, Private Course (wellness spaces to enjoy peace and quiet alone) and for those who want to work just a bit of wellness into a trip, A Half-Day’s Wellness Tour. The country’s emphasis on “beauty” is underscored with the inclusion of a Get Pretty Route along with a section of the guide devoted to 30 Places for Beauty & Spa.  Other sections of the guide include Sixteen Places for Well-Being Food, Seven Places for Fitness & Yoga, Nine Places for Nature & Green Therapy, Eight Places for Healing & Meditation.

Information on wellness travel options in Seoul along with the city’s medical tourism offerings  can be found on the Medical Tour Seoul website

Bukhansan National Park, South Korea courtesy of   

Elsewhere in South Korea, Jeju Island, situated on the southern coast and looked upon as Asia’s Hawaii, offers twenty-six different routes covering 264 miles of trails allowing both locals and visitors to explore the island on foot. In 2021, officials also launched the Jeju Walking Festival.

In Busan, WTA Member and Research Associate Danny Kessler, Assistant Professor at Dongseo University, International College and a foreign advisor to Busan International City Tourism says “the Busan government is encouraging wellness businesses to flourish by, for example, partnering with Busan-based Wellmi Wellness Solutions to sponsor the annual Busan International Wellness Conference.” WTA Member Laura McLuckie, CEO of WellMi Wellness Solutions and another advisor to Busan International City Tourism, adds that that “as a consultant for Busan’s MICE industry, I have seen a huge increase of interest from local businesses, passionate about developing wellness tourism in South Korea. The government is creating new opportunities and a diverse array of providers are jumping at the chance to enter the wellness tourism market.” She points out that, the Busan Economic Promotion Agency recently selected 10 local wellness-related businesses and awarded them funding to help foster sustainable wellness tourism in Busan. “Wellmi was one of the 10 companies selected,” she says, ”and despite South Korea being relatively young in the wellness tourism industry, there is a definite vibrancy emerging from both government and the private sector.” 

Professor Jin admits that the wellness tourism program in South Korea is still in the early stages and they need to work on increasing the customer value. Moving forward, he says, a strategy is needed to lay the foundation for wellness tourism through the following four steps:

  1. Critical self-diagnosis. They must identify the unique local traditions and services
  2. Develop local standards
  3. Develop a destination brand
  4. Creation and execuition of a marketing plan

In summary, Professor Jin points out that South Korea aims to raise the brand value of the country as a tourist destination by diversifying and upgrading tourism products. “Although Korea is ranked 10th in the world in terms of GDP, it does not have the competitive edge in the global tourism market,“ he says. “In this situation, it can be said that the government’s desire to enhance Korea’s tourism competitiveness by promoting wellness tourism is so important. And, by combining the medical and wellness tourism, the two industries create a synergistic effect to create unique products.”