SEOUL: Until early last year, the backbone for Korea’s tourism industry was Chinese tourists. However, as the flow of Chinese tourists declined due to the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery, Muslim tourists have filled the gap.
Founded less than two years ago, YallaKOREA caters to Muslim tourists ― mostly those in the Gulf region ― with customized services.
Yalla means “Let’s go” in Arabic dialect used in the Gulf region _ CEO Park Sang-won lived in the United Arab Emirates and Oman briefly and said his friends recommended the name.
In 2017, 850 tourists used YallaKOREA’s services. Acknowledging its potential, the Seoul Metropolitan Government offered support for the company’s marketing project last year.
Korea became known to the Muslim world through the Korean wave. Korean soap operas appealed to them, luring many to visit and experience traditional and contemporary Korean culture.
According to the Korea Tourism Organization, 770,000 Muslim tourists visited Korea in 2015 and 980,000 in 2016. Indonesians and Malaysians largely led these numbers, but those from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf countries are slowly growing.
YallaKOREA provides complete services, ranging from airport pickup to arranging daily tour activities and meals in and outside Seoul. Muslim travelers need prayer rooms during their travels and restaurants in which halal food is served ― halal food refers to foods allowed under Islamic dietary laws ― but in Korea it’s difficult to find them. A part of his team’s job was to find spaces for them to pray at each destination and put together a list of restaurants serving halal food. “There are details to work with,” he said.
But, he said changes are coming to Korea. “When I went to Gwangjang Market with a Muslim friend, I heard a food vendor selling dumplings yelling at him no-meat, no-meat. I felt great because this meant people in Korean are beginning to understand and respect Muslim visitors and their needs.”
Among the visits and activities YallaKOREA offers, what Muslim tourists enjoy the most are shopping at Myeong-dong, a zip-line through Yongin Forest and watching busking performances near Hongik University in Seoul, Park said. It also offers programs for Busan and Jeju Island.
YallaKOREA also makes YouTube videos for those who can’t travel, promoting tourism and cuisine in Korea in Arabic language. “Those who can travel to Korea are rather affluent. Many in Egypt and Morocco can’t afford a trip,” Park said.
It is also active on Instagram and Snapchat. Almost 60 percent of reservations come through social media _ the rest from his friends and past clients.
The business began with a humble goal: to help his friends visit Korea more conveniently.
As a student majoring in architecture, he spent almost one year in UAE and Oman in 2013 and 2014. His attempt to start a business in the UAE failed but he discovered the charms of Arabic language, culture and people.
“I changed my plan fast and told myself I would meet as many new people as possible before I go back to Korea.”
After UAE, he moved to Oman to study Arabic language for four months. After graduation, Park got a job at LG Electronics, where he worked for a year before quitting to start YallaKOREA.
“I had many friends from UAE and Oman. While I was working for LG, some came to visit Korea and I arranged things for them. They went back and recommended me to other friends coming to Korea. As more requests arrived, I thought I could start a new business.”
He’s happy with his growing business, but what’s more rewarding to him is seeing his business making life easier for Muslim travelers in Korea.