By Cecille Santillan-Visto
BUSAN may well be Korea’s land of festivals with unique celebrations for every season. From the Haeundae Sand Festival, Polar Bear Swim Festival, Busan Nakdong River Canola Blossoms Festival, the Busan One Asia Festival and the now world-renowned Busan International Film Festival, there is a reason to troop to Korea’s second-largest city any time of the year. But even without these special festivities, this major maritime hub has been attracting more visitors as it slowly establishes itself as a preferred location for meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE).
It prides itself for having a wide array of accommodations, convention facilities, and a perfect support system complementing both business and tourism.
According to the Busan Tourism Organization, this city in the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula ranked fourth among MICE cities in Asia and 15th in the world in a study conducted by the Union of International Associations (UIA) in 2011. In a more recent UIA survey released in June, Korea ranked first for meetings held in 2016. Out of 11,000 international meetings, 997 were held in Korea, representing 9.5%, increasing from 7.5% in 2015. The Land of the Morning Calm has consistently improved its standing from fourth in 2014 with 636 events to second place the following year with 891 events. Notably, Busan captured a respectable share of the events, hosting 152 meetings last year.
Korea recorded over 2,200 MICE tourists from the Philippines from January to December 2016. In the first 10 months of the year, more than 3,000 MICE visitors from the Philippines were listed. Seoul remains the top destination, followed by Busan, Gyeonggi, Gyeongnam and Daegu.
Busan decided to take the MICE path when it launched a meetings industry promotion plan in 2012. Aiming to become Asia’s business meeting hub, it expanded the Busan Exhibition and Convention Center (BEXCO) and auditorium, established other conference venues, and developed hotels and other types of lodgings for the expected deluge of visitors.
Now, Busan is more than a just alternative stop to Seoul. It is a destination that offers a vibe different from the capital city and certainly worth exploring well after the scheduled conference or exhibit is over.
Here are some of the recommended sites and activities for business travelers to Busan:
1. Ride the Busan Songdo Cable Car — Opened in June, this newest attraction provides an eight-minute ride from Songnim Park to Amnam Park. Also called the Busan Air Cruise, the cable car runs about 1.6 kilometers east to west across the sea and peaks at 86 meters. Although more expensive by 5,000 Korean Won, it is best to choose the crystal cabins with transparent bottoms for a more spectacular view of the Songdo Beach and the city as a whole.
2. Hit the beach — Haeundae and Gwangalli Beaches are open all year round but can only accommodate swimmers during summer. However, tourists visiting either during spring or fall will nonetheless enjoy as there are other things to do besides swimming. The nearby Busan Aquarium has an extensive collection of marine wildlife while those who prefer the outdoors can just commune with the pigeons of Haeundae.
3. Find the Little Prince at the Gamcheon Cultural Village — This colorful village with quaint cafés and one-of-a-kind shops continues to draw visitors. Dubbed as the Santorini of South Korea, it boasts of installations, murals and other artworks lined in its many art streets. Its picturesque and colorful hillside houses provide the area with a different creative charm. For some reason, however, tourists are drawn to the statue of The Little Prince, the main character in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s novella with the same title.
4. Say a little prayer at the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple – Although a bit difficult to reach by public transport, this majestic cliffside temple is a must-visit Busan monument. Buddhist monks roam the area and we were lucky to have been gifted with bracelets and more importantly, blessings, during our visit.
5. Food trip at the Jagalchi and Gukje Markets and the nearby BIFF Square – As a maritime port, even Koreans from other regions flock to Busan for its fresh seafood. The Jagalchi and Gukje Markets have restaurants with some of the best seafood platters. The adventurous may try the octopus sashimi, with newly harvested octopus that are moist, juicy, and still moving. BIFF Square, meantime, offers sweet Busan treats like ssiat hotteok, a sweet and chewy pancake stuffed with seeds and peanuts and may be addicting.
6. Check out the newly renovated Busan Tower — Busan Tower was refurbished last year and only reopened in July. Although not very tall compared to Seoul’s Namsan Tower or Lotte World Tower, it is increasingly drawing visitors for its multimedia display and interactive facilities.
7. Try the various unique hands-on activities — Busan is teeming with service providers that promote hands-on activities like the making of Samjin Eomuk (fish cake) or preparing your own makgeolli (rice wine) face mask. Short and simple, these projects are more for cultural appreciation. A jimjilbang (Korean spa) stopover at the Shinsegae, which holds the Guinness World Record for being the world’s largest shopping complex, will prove to be a unique experience. Leave your shyness at the door as customers will wander in their birthday suit.
8. Feel the adrenaline rush at Oryukdo Skywalk — There are five to six rock islands off the southern coast of Busan called Oryukdo (“o” means five while “yuk” means six in Korean) Island. Considered a National Cultural Heritage site, it is composed of the islands of Gonggotdo, Guldo, Surido, Usakdo (comprised of Bangpaedo and Sol), and Deungdaedo, where the lighthouse stands. A skywalk has been built so visitors can fully appreciate Busan’s deep blue ocean while walking on a transparent ledge.
So a visit to Busan need not be all business. Convention participants, managers, executives, and even incentive recipients can certainly take pleasure in what Busan has to offer after the last item in the agenda has been stricken off. And thereafter, Busan will definitely beckon you back.