Tour Interpreters Shape Korean Image
By Park Si-soo
Last December a tour bus carrying 20 Chinese visitors abruptly stopped on its way to the Unification Observatory in Gangwon Province, which gives visitors a view of North Korea. Once the bus was stopped, a couple of tourists were forced off. The doors then closed and the bus went on its way, leaving those left there to stand in the freezing cold weather.
Their crime? They had declined a tour guide’s request for an additional fee of 20,000 won ($20) for the trip to the observatory. Unwilling to let them sit on the bus, the driver forced them to spend more than two hours shivering on the roadside.
Another group of Chinese tourists visiting Seoul were served “Bulgogi (marinated beef)” for every meal during their five day itinerary, with no option for anything else.
The same group stayed at a small, remote “hotel” on the outskirts of Seoul, in stark contrast to the luxurious state-of-the-art facility they had seen on the leaflet issued by their tour agency. Their itinerary was frequently changed without prior notification.
A tourism ministry official who accompanied them in secret to monitor Korean tourism witnessed their terrible treatment.
Kim Jin-gon, the tourism ministry official who investigated the case, said “We presume unlicensed tourist interpreters who also served as tour guides were behind the incidents. In most cases, especially with Chinese visitors, the travel agency used to employ an unlicensed tour guide fluent in Chinese to save money.”
The Korea International Trade Association conducted a survey from 2006 through 2007 on foreigners who had visited both Korea and Japan to gauge their views on Korean tourism, compared to Japan.
Roughly 84 percent positively responded to Korean tourism, while more than 94 percent said they were satisfied with Japanese tourism.
To the question over re-visiting, 70.9 percent said they would return to Korea, with the figure standing at 90% for Japan.
To the inferiority of Korean tourism, Kang Young-man, executive office director at the Korea Tourist Guide Association (KTGA) pointed out “unlicensed tourist interpreters” as the major culprit in tarnishing Korea’s tourist reputation.
“Unlicensed interpreters earn profit at the cost of the tourists’ discomfort,” Kang said in a recent interview with The Korea Times. “Since 2003, the number of unqualified interpreters has `explosively’ increased and it has brought about soaring tourist dissatisfaction. In many cases, they force visitors to participate in an unplanned itinerary that imposes additional costs on clients and leads tourists to shopping malls rather than visit-worthy places so as to receive kickbacks from shop owners.”
In January 2003, the government scrapped an article in tourism law, which had obliged tour agencies dealing with foreign visitors to only employ workers holding a tourist interpreter license in line with the government’s efforts to ease regulations on tourism.
Most Asian countries including Japan, China, Singapore, Vietnam and Malaysia maintain the article to keep the quality of tourism in their countries from going backward.
The director said Chinese visitors are most vulnerable to unqualified guides. The Chinese are the second largest group of inbound tourists following the Japanese.
“Ethnic Chinese living in Korea are fluent in both Korean and Chinese. Many of them have served as tour guides for Chinese visitors. Chinese students here also serve as guides to make money. The two groups have dominated the Chinese tourist interpreters’ market,” he said.
According to KTGA, the two groups accounted for more than 80 percent of the Chinese tour guide market. Meanwhile, roughly half of the English tour guide market and 20 percent of the Japanese market are run by those without a license.
“Tourism interpretation is not merely translation from one set of words to another. It should be based on a strong understanding and knowledge of Korean culture and tradition,” the KTGA official said. “It’s possible that unqualified interpreters are more proficient in foreign language than licensed guides. But they lag behind qualified guides in the background knowledge needed to run a tour smoothly.”
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced on April 8 that it would submit a bill to the National Assembly to revive the abolished article.
“Foreign tourists’ distrust of guide continues to get stronger. But we will see the distrust disappearing once the bill gets endorsement from the National Assembly,” the director said.
Need for upgrading payment system
Currently, most tourist interpreters don’t belong to any tour agency, which means they serve as freelance tour guides, thus benefits such as insurance are not offered.
They get payment in the form of a daily allowance and demand for their help depends on the season.
The director stressed the “flexible” status of tourist interpreters is why they tend to pursue shopping-oriented and optional tourism programs.
KTGA estimates a tour guide gets 150,000 won ($150) per day on average in return for leading a 8-hour-long guiding program, and work for 15 days a month.
The interpreters’ association has strived to increase the daily allowance, which has been frozen for a number of years.
“We think 200,000 through 400,000 won ($200~400) a day is reasonable,” he said.
The association plans to grade its members according to language proficiency and prior experience in relevant industries to differentiate wages.
“It will be worked out by 2013. The classified information will be posted on the Internet for guide-seekers’ convenience. If the information is recognized in the market, those ranked high would be able to demand higher wages,” Kang said.
Noting the tourist interpreter market was already saturated due to a license test that has run with little consideration of market conditions, he said “We will also upgrade the test system to meet market conditions and fluctuating consumer demand.”
Kang said a tour guide is another name for a “diplomat,” someone who shares most of their daily time with foreign tourists, helping them learn about Korean culture, tradition and society.
“We believe tour guides have ample experience to know what inbound visitors think about Korean tourism and what is needed to upgrade tourist attractions around the country. We call on the government to set up an official channel to collect opinions from tourist interpreters.”