Will the 2018 Winter Olympics establish South Korea as a winter sports destination?
February 17, 2017

Written by Dr. Lynn MinnaertClinical Assistant Professor and Academic Chair

With around a year to go until the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics, Pyeongchang is gearing up to welcome thousands of athletes, sports fans, and journalists. For 16 days, this county east of Seoul will be in the global spotlight as a world-class winter sports destination. But what does the future hold for this destination, after the Olympic circus has left town?

There are many factors that should set Pyeongchang up for success. Hosting the Olympics comes with extensive investments in infrastructure, transportation, and lodging. A New York Times article highlights that even before these investments, Korea already had some of the best skiing infrastructures in Asia, with ski rentals and lodging options that were usually cheaper than its main competitor, Japan. Korea also has the ‘cool factor’: K-Pop bands hit the slopes to snowboard, and visitors are often fashionably dressed and image-conscious. While some sports facilities may be temporary and removed after the Olympics, the new high-speed train line from Seoul, whisking visitors to Pyeongchang in 69 minutes, will be a permanent asset for the destination. Investments in highways and telecommunications have also been made.

The infrastructure improvements associated with the Olympics will help invigorate the Korean winter sports sector, which has seen modest growth until 2012, followed by a certain decline due to the slowing economy. With around 5 million ski visits in 2015-16, Korea is a relatively small player in the market compared to nearby Japan, which averages 30 million ski visits per year.

However, some challenges for growth remain. The mountains in Korea are smaller than in neighboring countries and receive less snow. Although this can be remedied with artificial snow, some visitors will prefer the natural powder found in Hokkaido. Lodging in this pine-covered mountain area, which was long one of the least developed in Korea, is also not as ubiquitous and as close to the slopes in more developed destinations. Building more lodging facilities for the Olympics would be a risky strategy, as demand is likely to lessen after the event, which means vital team officials and coaches may have to stay in the Gangneung coastal cluster. Après-ski activities in many destinations in Korea are currently relatively limited. Finally, while demand for winter sport is growing in Asia, the Western market is flattening, and new destinations, like Bulgaria in Europe, are all vying for customers.

Having said that, the future may be bright for Korea, due to its proximity to China, where skiing is booming among the newly rich and young urban population. Seoul, now connected by high-speed rail to Pyeongchang, is a metropolis with over 10 million residents, many of whom look to escape the city after work. As the product offer is diversified with water sports and a water park, there are attractions for visitors on the warmer days. The increased name recognition after the Winter Olympics offers Pyeongchang a great opportunity for its lasting success.