South Korean photographer Sang-kyu Gil has visited the Philippines around 10 times.
Drawn by the beautiful scenery and affordable prices, the 42-year-old usually spends seven to 10 days in the country. That costs him around $400 — less than half the amount he expects to spend on a similar trip within his home country.
His last visit was in 2019, before the Covid pandemic hit, 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 indicator, the Philippines is likely to receive many visitors from South Korea when the pandemic ends.
Residents from South Korea topped the list of visitor arrivals to the Philippines every year from 2010 to 2020, according to data from the Philippines‘ Department of Tourism.
China, the United States and Japan rounded out the top four over the same time period, though each has much larger populations than South Korea’s 51 million residents.
The Philippines isn’t the top destination for South Koreans, although it is in the top 10, according to a Philippines tourism official. In absolute numbers, far more South Koreans visit countries such as Japan and Vietnam.
Still, South Korean tourists visit the Philippines more than any other travelers — a situation which did not happen by accident.
Maria Corazon Jorda Apo, Philippine tourism director for South Korea, told CNBC that the Philippines targeted South Korea tourists when the country lifted its restrictions on overseas travel in 1989.
Before that, only South Koreans over 40 years old could go overseas for tourism, and there were conditions attached, the Associated Press reported. The government eased those measures as it pursued democratic development and liberalization, the report said.
The Philippines Department of Tourism recognized the opportunity and “established a foothold in Korea since 1989” by employing Korea-based marketing representatives, Apo said. The department later opened an office in Seoul in 2007 “to conduct intensive marketing and promotions,” she added.
Those efforts paid off. Before the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 5 travelers to the Philippines was from South Korea.
Here’s what brings these visitors to the Philippines.
1. Proximity and convenience
The Philippines is a favored destination because of the short travel time and direct flights between the two countries, Apo said.
It takes around four hours to get from South Korea’s Incheon Airport to Manila in the Philippines.
There are also direct flights, under five hours, to famed beach islands in the Philippines.
“Koreans can easily travel to the Philippines for a weekend getaway — usually leaving … on a Friday night, then coming back to Korea on early Monday morning,” Apo said.
By comparison, Bangkok is a six-hour flight from Incheon Airport, and getting to beaches in Thailand or Indonesia typically requires a layover.
Easy access is a “prime reason” for the Philippines’ popularity among South Koreans, according to Cho Il-sang, a public relations representative from Hana Tour, a Korean travel agency.
“Among Southeast Asian countries, the flight duration is the shortest from South Korea,” he told CNBC.
University student Hyunchan Lee, 23, who visited Boracay in 2018, said the island seemed like an easy destination for people who aren’t familiar with the Philippines.
For other places in the Philippines, there are many guide books and blogs to help the planning process, he said.
2. Beautiful beaches
Philippine beaches are also a big draw for visitors from South Korea — with those around Cebu and Boracay being top favorites.
South Korea’s beaches just aren’t the same as those in the Philippines, said Alex Jeong, a Korean sales manager at Philippines-based travel agency Rakso Travel.
Lee said the “best memory” from his trip to Boracay in 2018 was hanging out with friends on their hotel’s private beach.
He’s not the only one. A 2020 visitor survey found that Koreans love the “beautiful sceneries and beaches of the Philippines,” said Philippines Tourism’s Apo.
3. Low prices
Flights between the two countries are relatively cheap, and the rise of low-cost carriers have helped make the Philippines “even more popular” as a tourist destination, Hana Tour’s Cho said.
“Really cheap” flight tickets were one reason why Lee, the university student, chose to visit Boracay.
The food was also cheap and tasty, he said, adding that taxis and other forms of private transport are also inexpensive — which is important since public transportation in the Philippines isn’t well developed.
The Philippines reopened its borders to tourists in February, but South Korean leisure travelers are unlikely to visit for now, said Rakso Travel’s Jeong.
That’s because most people who arrive in South Korea still need to serve mandatory quarantines.
However, Apo said interest “greatly increased” when the Philippines announced its borders were reopening, although she did not elaborate on whether bookings have been made.
“We expect the tourism demand to the Philippines to recover fast once travel restrictions are lifted in both countries,” Cho of Hana Tour said.
— CNBC’s Chelsea Ong and Chery Kang contributed to this report.