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North Korea threatens the Philippines

Our tourist industry, that is.

Tourism in most countries in Asia of course would likely grind to a halt if ever a war in Asia triggered by North Korea’s utter stupidity. 

However, what makes things worse for the Philippines is that, even if actual war doesn’t break out, and if South Korea just goes on a high-alert level to be prepared for the North’s aggression, and call for its citizens’ mobilization, our tourism industry would be dealt a severe blow.

President Aquino boasts that his tuwid na daan suddenly made the country attractive to tourists. Tourism Secretary Ramon Jimenez on the other has been patting himself on the back that his “more-fun” advertising slogan was so successful that the number of tourists passed the 4 million mark last year.

The reality though has nothing to do with Aquino or with Jimenez with his cute slogan.

South Korean tourists have become the biggest bloc of foreign visitors in the country, numbering 1 million last year, a phenomenal growth from just 200,000 in 2001. They account now for 25 percent of foreign visitors, beating those coming from North America — half balikbayans from the US and Canada – who numbered 625,000 last year or just 15 percent of the total.

There has actually been an explosion of Korean tourists overseas a few years after that country in 1988 lifted its restrictions on foreign travel and the amount of foreign money its citizens could spend abroad. The strengthening of its currency in the last decade combined with the rise of a young middle-class have been major factors for the growth of outbound Korean tourism.

Koreans’ top five favorite destinations, going by 2011 figures, have been, in order of importance: China, Japan, Thailand, US, and the Philippines.

Our beach resorts and scuba sites as well as our famous warm hospitality and adult nightlife undoubtedly have attracted Korean tourists. There are however two other major factors explaining the phenomenal growth of Korean tourists in the country.

A substantial number of Koreans here are really no longer tourists but permanent residents, living throughout the archipelago and operating various types of small businesses, from restaurants to their own tourist agencies. A significant number reportedly have taken advantage of our liberal incentives to acquire a retiree status involving as small as a P50,000 bank account. Apparently, Korean executives working here starting in the late 1990s had spread the word that the Philippines was a great place to live in, without the harsh winters in Korea and with its English-speaking people, in contrast for instance to Thailand.

There have even emerged areas in the country that are Korea-towns: BF Homes in Parañaque, Barangay Poblacion in Makati, Kalayaan Plaza Building in Quezon City. Owners who have gone tired of the traffic and pollution in the area have rented an increasing number of residences in the posh Ayala Alabang Village to Koreans. The Renaissance condominium towers in Ortigas is said to be a Korean village now. Two years ago when I stayed there for a week, I didn’t see a single Filipino. Even the convenience store was Korean. Even Tagaytay City has been “invaded” by Koreans missing the cool climate of their homeland.

Korean residents in the country have become so numerous that they have started to affect the country’s gene pool and culture. There has been an estimate of as many as 600,000 Korean-Filipinos, born out or within wedlock. The most well known Filipino-Korean is celebrity, and TV news presenter Grace Lee (born Lee Kyung Hee) whom the Philippine president wooed – unsuccessfully. “Koreanovelas” have taken over prime time TV.

The biggest factor though that explains why we have had a flood of Koreans in the country involves Korean companies’ requirement for their new staff to be proficient in English.

This proficiency is determined by their passing – with their scores a big factor for their salaries – the so-called Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC), which was developed in 1979 and undertaken by Japan’s Institute for International Business Communication. Koreans have become the largest takers of the test, last year totaling 2 million, more than the 1.9 million in Japan.

Not only is there a TOEIC center in Manila where Koreans can take the test. The Koreans have found out that Filipinos can teach English, and that instruction to learn the language sufficient to pass TOEIC with flying colors can be taken in any urban center in the country at a cost that is a fraction of that in Korea. For Koreans, the Philippines is where instruction to pass TOEIC is one of the best, and the cheapest.

While there have been regular English-language schools in the country where Koreans have enrolled in, enterprising Koreans have realized that they can organize their own outfits where English is taught even by Filipino college students. A modus operandi has been for Korean to rent a house, and then to sub-lease its rooms to Koreans, who would enroll in the English-language course undertaken in the living room of the residence. A house in BF Parañaque renting for P60,000 for instance would be sub-leased by a Korean to four families, each of whom would pay him P50,000, for an easy P140,000 profit, less the P15,000 a month he pays the English teacher straight from college.

It’s a perfect, extended holiday for many Koreans who would have to take the TOEIC soon, since they can study English for the all-important test while enjoying the country’s beaches and nightlife during their rest periods. The Tourism secretary should change his slogan to the more accurate: “It’s more fun to study English in the Philippines.”

That could all change in a day’s time. Military service is a requirement for Koreans if called upon by their government. An imminent threat as perceived by the Korean government would require them to return to their homeland to be drafted into the military or participate in the war effort. Korean tourism in the country had in fact proven to be extremely sensitive to developments in that country and in the region. When the Asian financial crisis struck in 2007, the number of Korean tourists to the Philippines plunged by 24 percent by 2009. It would be a body blow to our tourism industry if the number of Korean tourists fall by that much if the North Korean crisis escalates.