South Korean photographer Sang Kyu Gil visited the Philippines about 10 times.
Attracted by beautiful landscapes and reasonable prices, the 42-year-old spends seven to ten days in the country. It costs him about $400 – less than half the amount he can expect to spend on a similar trip inside his home country.
His last visit was in 2019, before the Covid pandemic broke out, but that trip is unlikely to be his last.
“Of course, I have plans to visit the Philippines again,” he told CNBC Travel in Korean.
If past trends are any indication, the Philippines will likely receive many visitors from South Korea when the pandemic is over.
South Koreans topped the list of arrivals to the Philippines each year from 2010 to 2020, according to data from the Philippines.“ Tourism Department.
China, the United States, and Japan ranked the top four during the same time period, although each has a much larger population than South Korea’s 51 million.
The Philippines is not the first destination for South Koreans, although it is among the top ten, according to a Filipino tourism official. In absolute numbers, much more South Koreans visit countries such as Japan and Vietnam.
However, more South Korean tourists visit the Philippines than any other traveler – a situation that did not happen by chance.
Maria Corazon Gorda Apo, Philippine tourism director for South Korea, told CNBC that the Philippines targeted tourists from South Korea when the country lifted its restrictions on overseas travel in 1989.
Before that, only South Koreans over 40 could travel abroad for tourism, and there were conditions, the Associated Press reported. The report stated that the government eased these measures as it sought to achieve democratic and liberal development.
Apo said the Philippine Department of Tourism recognized the opportunity and “established a foothold in Korea since 1989” by hiring marketing representatives in Korea. She added that the department later opened an office in Seoul in 2007 “to conduct extensive marketing and promotion.”
These efforts have paid off. Before the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 5 travelers to the Philippines were from South Korea.
Here’s what brings these visitors to the Philippines.
1. Proximity and convenience
Abu said the Philippines is a preferred destination due to the short travel time and direct flights between the two countries.
It takes about four hours to get from Incheon Airport in South Korea to Manila in the Philippines.
There are also direct flights, under five hours, to popular beach islands in the Philippines.
“Koreans can easily travel to the Philippines for the weekend — and they usually leave… on a Friday night, then return to Korea early on Monday morning,” Apo said.
In comparison, Bangkok takes a six-hour flight from Incheon Airport, and getting to beaches in Thailand or Indonesia usually requires a layover.
The recommended way to travel between the islands of the Philippines is by plane.
Brian Cambry / Im | Eyeem | Getty Images
Easy access is a “key reason” for the Philippines’ popularity among South Koreans, according to Cho Il-sang, a public relations representative from Korea’s Hana Tour Travel Agency.
“Among Southeast Asian countries, the flight duration is the shortest than that of South Korea,” he told CNBC.
University student Hyunshan Lee, 23, who visited Boracay in 2018, said the island seemed like an easy destination for people unfamiliar with the Philippines.
For other places in the Philippines, he said, there are many books and how-to blogs to help with the planning process.
2. Beautiful beaches
Filipino beaches are also a big draw for visitors from South Korea – those around Cebu and Boracay are some of the top favorites.
Alex Jeong, Korean sales manager at Philippine travel agency Raxo Travel, said South Korea’s beaches are not the same as those in the Philippines.
Undergraduate student Hyunshan Lee said that Boracay is a “really popular travel place” among South Koreans.
Courtesy of Hyunshan Lee
He told me his “best memory” from his trip to Boracay in 2018 was hanging out with his friends on the hotel’s private beach.
He is not the only one. A visitor survey conducted in 2020 revealed that Koreans love the “beautiful landscapes and beaches of the Philippines,” according to Apo of the Philippine Tourism Authority.
3. Low prices
Flights between the two countries are relatively cheap, Chu said from Hana Tour, and the emergence of low-cost airlines has helped make the Philippines “more popular” as a tourist destination.
The “really cheap” airline tickets were one of the reasons why Lee, an undergraduate, chose to visit Boracay.
The food was also cheap and delicious, he said, adding that taxis and other private transportation are also inexpensive – which is important because public transportation in the Philippines is not well developed.
Traveling “After the Pandemic”
The Philippines reopened its borders to tourists in February, but it’s unlikely that South Korean travelers will visit for leisure at the moment, Rakso Travel’s Jeong said.
That’s because most people arriving in South Korea still require mandatory quarantine service.
However, Apo said interest “significantly increased” when the Philippines announced the reopening of its borders, although she did not say whether or not it had made reservations.
“We expect the Philippines’ tourism demand to recover quickly once travel restrictions are lifted in both countries,” said Chu of Hana Tour.
CNBC’s Chelsea Ong and Sherry Kang contributed to this report.