ENTERTAINMENT Reality TV Tourism Takes Flight

Around 30 million international trips are booked annually from Korea. Meanwhile, tens of millions of visitors arrive from abroad. An assortment of reality TV shows applies color and texture to the waves of tourism in and out of the country.

Areality show that premiered on KBS in August 2007, “1 Night 2 Days” launched Korean TV channels’ travel entertainment genre. The show featured a regular cast of celebrities who visited tourist attractions across the country, putting themselves in funny situations such as deciding who would sleep in a tent on a cold winter night. Camping boomed as the show evolved. Sales of not only tents but all outdoor gear and equipment soared. Furthermore, pleasure trips also evolved from taking pictures at historic sites or beautiful venues to visiting places that could be experienced.

“Grandpas Over Flowers” is a travel TV show featuring elderly celebrities on backpacking trips. The U.S. television network NBC purchased remake rights and titled its adaptation “Better Late Than Never.”

Changes in Travel
The show was the creation of producer Na Young-seok, who is a household name in Korea’s TV travel entertainment. After the successful first season, Na moved to cable channel tvN, while the show stayed for 12 seasons until March this year.

Together with his younger colleagues Na formed the so-called “Na Yeong-seok crew,” producing many reality shows about traveling. These shows set the tone for Korea’s TV travel entertainment programs and influenced the way the public enjoyed traveling. At the same time, they mirrored the transition from sightseeing to experience, domestic to overseas, and group to individual travel.

Viewers cheered once again in 2013, when “Grandpas Over Flowers” began to air. It cast five to six actors in their seventies and sent them on backpacking trips in Europe. Until then, the dominant perception was that only college students went backpacking. The format caught viewers off-guard; it was appealing, tapping the overseas travel rush in an aging society. The show was credited with enticing senior citizens into traveling abroad.

The cast in “Youn’s Kitchen” run a Korean restaurant in a foreign country to serve locals and tourists and communicate with them.

Across Age Groups
Another reality show, “Three Meals a Day,” warmed the hearts of urban residents. It was about a duo of celebrities who take up a spot in the middle of nowhere, with no one getting in their way. They just focused on preparing three square meals a day, which provided solace to urban dwellers overburdened with work and exhausted from dealing with people. Uprooted from easy-to-find meals in cities, the celebrities had to overcome problems in preparing a decent meal in a very remote place, drawing laughter and empathy from the viewers. They also invited friends to travel to their locale to share a meal, adding to their contentment in a new form of travel. The show lasted seven seasons, ending in 2017.

Returning to nature and eco-friendly lifestyle in their extremes created a so-called “off-the-grid” trend. In 2018, the Na crew created another show with a refreshing theme, called “Little Cabin in the Woods,” in which a house was built deep in the forest, without access to electricity or gas. Viewers caught a glimpse of what it would be like living that close to nature. The birds chirping and water flowing sounded all the clearer and the stars at night shone all the brighter because it was such an isolated place. It healed the minds of viewers tired of hectic urban life.

“Youn’s Kitchen,” which aired from 2017 to 2018, featured a Korean restaurant in a foreign country serving both locals and tourists. It highlighted the urge to try something new outside the country and to communicate with foreigners on a daily basis. Travel in essence is an activity that allows a peek at the lives of other people and unfamiliar spaces. The increasing number of Koreans traveling abroad suggests surging curiosity about other people and cultures as well as a freer spirit and self-confidence to experience faraway places. A total of 20 episodes aired over the show’s two seasons, adequately capturing current trends.

In “Korean Hostel in Spain,” one of the most recent series, room and board is provided to travelers on a road to Santiago, Spain.

Communication Abroad
“Korean Hostel in Spain,” a new show that began airing this March, adopts the now familiar format of celebrities settling abroad but alters the formula. They run a hostel that provides room and board on a road to Santiago, Spain, and serves as a setting for interaction with neighbors in the community and both Korean and non-Korean tourists.

Travel may seem like a limited motif, but Na and his team have proven how one’s destination, mode of travel and travel companion can open up unimagined possibilities. There surely is a message: Travel culture can become a lot more diverse and richer depending on travelers’ choices.

In the past, Korea’s outbound tourism was characterized by group mentality and lack of diversity. However, gone are the days of robotic decisions, going somewhere simply because everyone else is going there. The transition has been clear, starting with package tours, moving on to individual travel and now personalized travel experiences. The multitude of travel entertainment shows on TV exploring varied tastes and preferences are a clear sign of this change.

Jung Duk-hyun Popular Culture Critic
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