South Korea-Japan relations demonstrate some of the most conflicting dynamics in East Asia, encompassing historical, political and diplomatic disagreements. Analyses tend to follow a top-down analytical framework and focus on state-to-state relations. However, more work should examine how civic engagement via tourism is vital to creating an environment that facilitates diplomatic reconciliation.
Bilateral tourism statistics between South Korea and Japan show a steady increase since 2015. For example, the number of Japanese visitors to South Korea increased from 4,002,095 in 2015 to 7,539,000 in 2018. Likewise, the number of South Korean visitors increased from 1,837,782 in 2015 to 2,948,527 in 2018. This trend has continued throughout 2018 as well as in the initial months of 2019, until relations soured due to a series of events including the October 2018 South Korean Supreme Court ruling.
The media was quick to note the sudden decline in tourism in July 2019, when South Korea-Japan trade disputes intensified. Despite the publicity surrounding this incident, it is important to note that other events, such as the March 2011 Fukushima nuclear incident and the Global Financial Crisis in 2008-2009, detrimentally impacted tourism between South Korea and Japan. Yet, gradually, bilateral tourism recovered, however.
This positive trend in bilateral tourism is due to characteristics inherent to South Korea-Japan tourism, including geographic proximity and cultural affinity. Geographic proximity provides both South Korean and Japanese tourists high accessibility, convenience and affordability. South Korean and Japanese citizens also tend to travel to the other nation due to innate cultural curiosity, which helps to heighten a positive perception of the host nation.
There are also challenges associated with bilateral tourism, including unforeseen disasters and currency exchange rates. Government management is an important countermeasure to such challenges. Unfortunately, governments require an incentive to pursue such measures, which can be difficult to muster at times of diplomatic tension. Three policy recommendations will use bilateral tourism to promote diplomatic reconciliation and domestic developments for both South Korean and Japanese governments.
Recommendation 1) Promote joint research on South Korea-Japan tourism at both local and national levels
South Korea is Japan’s second ranking market for inbound tourism, as Japan is for South Korea. Yet both South Korea’s Basic Tourism Promotion Plan (2017) and Japan’s White Paper on Tourism (2017) mention the significance of inbound tourism to national growth strategies without specific recommendations for different countries. To construct a more detailed plan for tourism development, case studies and research on South Korea and Japan tourism should be conducted. Research coordination on bilateral tourism would not only be economically beneficial to both nations but would serve as a mode for diplomatic cooperation. As an initial step, South Korea and Japan could utilize existing cooperation networks between municipal governments such as Busan and Fukuoka.
Recommendation 2) Establish a joint information-sharing mechanism in emergencies
The lack of coordination following the Fukushima nuclear incident in March 2011 shows that South Korea and Japan need to enhance information-sharing capacities to build mutual trust. The two nations should establish a joint mechanism for sharing information on tourism safety. A mechanism to vet publication of state-approved information by both South Korea and Japan would prevent the dissemination of false information and fear.
Recommendation 3) Mutual recognition of the economic significance of cultural tourism
South Korea and Japan should also recognize the economic significance of culturally driven tourism. For example, South Korean visitors partake in traditional and popular cultural activities during visits to Japan including spa visits, historical site visits, shopping and culinary experiences. Japanese visitors opt for culinary experiences, shopping, and visits to historical and cultural sites as main tourist activities to pursue in South Korea.
These activities are based on mutual cultural affinity. However, both South Korean and Japanese governments tie tourism to consumerism and the national economy. As a result, discouraging bilateral visits through the weaponization of currency exchange rates or the implementation of policies will hurt domestic economies. Instead of aiming to hinder cultural engagement through tourism, South Korea and Japan should embrace increased mutual cultural affinity as a foundation for domestic and regional development.