What is the largest tourist market in the Philippines? It’s South Korea

South Korean photographer Sang-kyu Gil has visited the Philippines a dozen times.

Attracted by the beauty of the landscapes and the affordable prices, this 42-year-old man generally spends seven to ten days in the country. It costs him about $400, less than half the amount he expects to spend on a similar trip to his home country.

His last visit was in 2019, before the Covid pandemic hit, but this trip is unlikely to be his last.

“Of course, I plan to visit the Philippines again,” he told CNBC Travel in Korean.

If past trends are any indicator, the Philippines will likely receive many visitors from South Korea when the pandemic ends.

Residents of South Korea topped the list of visitor arrivals to the Philippines every year from 2010 to 2020, according to Philippines data Department of Tourism.

China, the United States and Japan rounded out the top four during the same period, although each has a much larger population than South Korea’s 51 million people.

The Philippines is not the top destination for South Koreans, although it is in the top 10, according to a Philippine tourism official. In absolute numbers, far more South Koreans are visiting countries like Japan and Vietnam.

Still, South Korean tourists visit the Philippines more than any other traveler – a situation that didn’t happen by accident.

Maria Corazon Jorda Apo, Philippine tourism director for South Korea, told CNBC that the Philippines targeted South Korean tourists when the country lifted restrictions on overseas travel in 1989.

Prior to this, only South Koreans over the age of 40 could travel abroad for tourism, and conditions were attached, the Associated Press reported. The government eased these measures as it pursued democratic development and liberalisation, the report said.

The Philippine Department of Tourism recognized the opportunity and “has had a foothold in Korea since 1989” employing Korea-based marketing representatives, Apo said. The department then opened an office in Seoul in 2007 “to conduct intensive marketing and promotion campaigns”, she added.

These efforts have paid off. Before the pandemic, about 1 in 5 travelers to the Philippines came from South Korea.

This is what brings these visitors to the Philippines.

1. Proximity and convenience

The Philippines is a preferred destination due to short travel time and direct flights between the two countries, Apo said.

It takes about four hours to travel from Incheon airport in South Korea to Manila in the Philippines.

There are also direct flights, under five hours, to the famous resort islands of the Philippines.

“Koreans can easily travel to the Philippines for a weekend getaway, usually leaving…on Friday evening and then returning to Korea early Monday morning,” Apo said.

By comparison, Bangkok is a six-hour flight from Incheon airport, and getting to the beaches of Thailand or Indonesia usually requires a layover.

The recommended way to travel between the islands of the Philippines is by plane.

Bryan Cambri/Eyeem | Eye | Getty Images

Ease of access is a “main reason” for the Philippines’ popularity with South Koreans, according to Cho Il-sang, a public relations representative for Hana Tour, a Korean travel agency.

“Among Southeast Asian countries, the flight time 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 unfamiliar with the Philippines.

For other places in the Philippines, there are plenty of guides and blogs to help with the planning process, he said.

2. Beautiful beaches

The beaches of the Philippines also attract visitors from South Korea, with Cebu and Boracay being favorites.

South Korea’s beaches just aren’t the same as those in the Philippines, said Alex Jeong, Korean sales manager at Philippines-based travel agency Rakso Travel.

University student Hyunchan Lee said Boracay is a “really famous travel spot” among South Koreans.

Courtesy of Hyunchan Lee

Lee said the “best memory” of her trip to Boracay in 2018 was spending time with friends on their hotel’s private beach.

He is not the only one. A 2020 visitor survey found that Koreans love the “beautiful landscapes and beaches in the Philippines”, said Apo of Philippines Tourism.

3. Low price

Flights between the two countries are relatively cheap, and the rise of low-cost carriers has helped make the Philippines “even more popular” as a tourist destination, Hana Tour’s Cho said.

The “really cheap” airfare was one of the reasons Lee, the college 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 because public transport in the Philippines is not well developed.

“Post-pandemic” trip

The Philippines reopened its borders to tourists in February, but South Korean leisure travelers are unlikely to head there just yet, Rakso Travel’s Jeong said.

Indeed, most people arriving in South Korea still have to go through mandatory quarantines.

However, Apo said interest “increased significantly” when the Philippines announced the reopening of its borders, although she did not say whether any reservations had been made.

“We expect tourism demand in the Philippines to recover quickly once travel restrictions are lifted in both countries,” Hana Tour’s Cho said.

– CNBC’s Chelsea Ong and Chery Kang contributed to this report.