12 reasons to visit Korea in 2012
2012, the year the world supposedly ends. All the more reason to visit Korea -- the Land of Morning Calm -- to soothe your terror before the world is destroyed by a meteorite.
And 2012 is also the Year of the Dragon, according to the Chinese zodiac. And not only that, but it's also the Year of the Black Dragon, which only comes once around every 60 years.
But there's more than cool East Asian symbolism to make 2012 a great year for visiting Korea.
There are 12 reasons, listed below:
1. It's Visit Korea Year
Visit Korea Year is essentially a two-year campaign of exclusive discounts and promotions designed to make Korea more attractive to travelers. 2012 is the final year of the campaign.
Virgin tourists to Korea: don't wait another year.
2. Korea Grand Sale
The Korea Grand Sale is technically part of the Visit Korea Year campaign but in its grandness it deserves its own category.
Unlike some of the other promotional discounts of Visit Korea Year, the Korea Grand Sale is surprisingly, and non-intuitively, not just about saving a few won.
"We're sometimes asked why the discounts in the Korea Grand Sale's sales are rather less than grand," says Yoon Heejin of the Visit Korea Committee's PR team.
"That's because the Korea Grand Sale is not just about buying loads of cheap stuff at low prices. It's about a complete cultural experience."
Sure, there is a strong element of Black Friday stampedes in this 52-day "national shopping extravaganza," which will involve more than 21,000 businesses and discounts of up to 50 percent.
But if you look beyond the shiny promotional poster of Hallyu star Choi Ji-woo looking mighty happy with shopping bags hanging off her arms, there's a great deal more to be found in the Korea Grand Sale than half-price luxury lipsticks.
The Grand Sale will kick off with a week-long welcome event at Incheon International Airport beginning January 9, 2012. And unlike lipstick, which is likely to appeal exclusively to a specific, narrow demographic, this opening event will include the distribution of a lottery ticket, so everyone receives at least something. A sweltering volunteer will be dressed up as Pororo the Penguin -- who is an official mascot -- willing to take photos with kids.
But the real opening celebration will be on January 13, at DOOTA Shopping Mall in Dongdaemun. There will be performances (like Original Drawing Show) most Koreans usually pay hefty sums to see. There will be prize draws, which means that even by simply being there, you might win a trip to Jeju Island or a free night at a hotel.
And finally, there will be celebrity appearances as well as numerous lotteries and sweepstakes opportunities.
Window shopping will never be so fun again. (Nor so potentially profitable).
3. Hallyu Madness
2012 is looking to be a good year for K-Pop.
If you're a devoted follower, you might already know that there are several big comebacks in the works, like an upcoming Big Bang concert, or Se7en's new album. You might also know that 2ne1 will be releasing their collaborations with will.i.am.
But if all this is hard to remember, you can just remember one: the 21st Seoul Music Awards, which will be held on January 19, 2012, at the Olympic Gymnastics Arena, which will be the K-Pop event of the next year.
And it just so happens that the date of the awards ceremony coincides with the period of the Korea Grand Sale. Coincidence? Or clever maneuvering on the part of the Visit Korea Committee? Doesn't matter; saw Big Bang!
Also keep your eyes peeled and your limbs oiled for the 2012 take on last year's K-Pop Cover Dance Festival. If you think you have the moves, you can even enter the competition and submit a video of yourself dancing to a designated K-Pop song. Otherwise, it's a good chance to gawk at startlingly on-the-spot K-Pop impersonators.
"Last year we had 2PM as judges," says Yoon Heejin of the Visit Korea Committee's Public Relations Department.
"They were astonished at how accurate some of the contestants' impersonations were. For example, a team that danced to Girls' Generation also managed to capture the individual characteristics of each member, down to the outfits, the hair, and the roles."
Finally, the Hallyu Dream Festival, held in Gyeong-ju, historical capital of ancient Korean kingdom Silla (like the Shilla Hotel), combines K-Pop shows with historical "experiences" for a quasi-music, quasi-film, quasi-history fair festival that acknowledges K-Pop's less famous but equally worthy brother, the K-Drama. More specifically, the period K-Drama.
Fans of Silla-era period drama "Queen Seondeok," for example, will appreciate that they can explore on foot the former set of the drama, and perhaps even the former setting of the actual events, minus K-Drama's tendency towards heavy fictionalization.
4. The IFC fulfills its destiny
Although the International Finance Center in Yeouido opened in 2011, it's not quite complete. The Conrad Hotel, which is slated to open in the IFC sometime in 2012, will hopefully add a homey touch to the formidable business complex, which tops the 249-meter 63 Building (once the tallest building in Korea) by a good 35 meters.
That is, as homey as one of the world's most luxurious five-star business hotels can be, anyway.
5. Celebrating food: Almost as good as food itself
Don't give a damn about K-Pop? Can't digest Wonder Girls, unless ironically remixed by basement DJ on tumblr? Just uninterested in music, in general? That's fine. Korea still has plenty to offer in 2012, and many of these offerings are edible. The world may be ending, but Koreans will still be cooking. Cooking death-defyingly tasty dishes.
Sample them at the 2012 Korea Food Festival in Jeonju, the city in the South famed for its attractive and delectable dishes, and home of Jeonju bibimbap.
5/F Wooseok Building, 710-5 Geumam 1-dong, Deokjin-gu, Jeonju-si, Jeollabuk-do (전라북도 전주시 덕진구 금암1동 710-5 우석빌딩 5층); +82 63 272 6987, 8; www.koreafoodfestival.or.kr
6. The 2012 Expo in Yeosu
Given that Korea's a peninsula that's effectively an island with three sides (given the situation in the North), it's surprising that there's not more emphasis on marine matters.
The 2012 International Exposition in Yeosu, however, opening under the theme of "The Living Ocean and Coast," is hopefully, supposedly changing some of that. The expo will deal with issues regarding not only the sea, biologically, but also marine technology and sustainable resources.
But really, to the average visitor, the academic conferences and the lofty ideals, while impressive -- more than 100 countries and millions of visitors are expected to participate -- aren't really attractions.
Although we may all appreciate the fact that the United States' involvement in this Expo, for example, optimistically signals greater strides in awareness of marine environmental problems, that's not what makes Yeosu -- and Korea -- desirable in 2012.
Yeosu has other attractions. The Expo will feature weird and wonderful interactive displays, film screenings, and exhibitions housed in weird and wonderful buildings. For example, there will be a "Cosmic Tree" installation that interacts with visitors, the self-explanatory "Fisheries Experience Zone," and an aquarium.
100 Deokchungan-gil, Yeosu-si, Jeollanam-do (전라남도 여수시 덕충안길 100); +82 1577 2012; eng.expo2012.kr
7. Because it's not just about Seoul this year
A new express train, the ITX, will now make it easier to travel between Seoul and Chuncheon. Not quite as fast as its predecessor, the KTX, but speedy enough to stir notice, the ITX runs at 180 kph. Such numbers may not mean much to you, but the name Chuncheon might: Chuncheon is the birthplace of Chuncheon dakgalbi, a sacred foodie mecca where the original dakgalbi recipe remains untainted by Seoul's tastes.
But the significance of the ITX, which is due to start running sometime in February 2012, according to Arirang Korea, is not in being easily transportated to the birthplace of a 1970s chicken dish. Just as Chuncheon's essence can't fit into a greasy pan -- Chuncheon is home to mountains, lakes, lake islands, and numerous architectural and historical treasures -- it's bigger. It's about a bigger Korea, a Korea beyond Seoul.
Some of these aspirations are also clearly felt in Visit Korea Committee's online project, the recently opened Must-See Routes, a collection of suggested travel itineraries that cover various Korean provinces. For a comprehensive look at all that you're missing in Korea -- because chances are that most of the places featured are unfamiliar rather than familiar -- Must-See Routes is thorough. And accompanied by stunning photographs.
More on CNNGo: Why it's great to be a foreign traveler in Korea
8. Olleh Smartphone Film Festival
As one of the world's most wired cities, being at the forefront of smartphone technology development is almost obligatory.
2012 will be the second year of Korea's Olleh Smartphone Film Festival, an innovative tech-themed soirée that promotes and celebrates future smartphone development. But as the name suggests, it's more than a showcase for fancy new phones.
The festival, which will be held from March 19 to March 21, includes a competition component for professional and amateur filmmakers alike with tantalizing cash prizes of up to ₩50 million for the best short films shot with a smartphone.
There are no restrictions, save for a time limit of 10 minutes or less, and contestants are encouraged to exercise their "creativity" and "boldness" to the fullest.
Contestants are divided into two categories, professional and amateur, and the top three candidates from each category will be awarded cash prizes of ₩1 million, ₩3 million and ₩5 million, respectively, as well as a brand-new smartphone. The last candidate standing will receive a whopping ₩20 million in prize money, and all of the runner-ups will receive opportunities to expand on and develop their smartphone short films into larger projects, as well public and media exposure via screenings that will be held in March and April.
The festival is accepting submissions starting January 1.
+82 2 517 3353; www.ollehfilmfestival.com
9. Seoul International Marathon
For those who constantly tell themselves to get in shape but never do, the Seoul International Marathon might just be impetus they need. At 42.195 kilometers, it may be well past driving distance for the binge-drinking, taxi-cabbing, chain-smoking Seoulite, but if you can beat yourself into shape by 8 a.m., March 18, this might mean a new beginning for your body and mind.
There aren't many qualifications--if you're over 18 and reasonably confident that you can run approximately 43 kilometers in five hours or less (it's said to be easier than it looks on paper, with some preparation) you're eligible to run. If you manage to finish in less than three hours, you will be inducted into the Hall of Fame and will also receive a medal as a motivational token for the future. The marathon, which kicks off at the statue of Admiral Lee Soon-Sin in Gwanghwamun and ends at the Jamsil Olympic Stadium, will be broadcast live in 50 countries. Applications are accepted until the 20,000 runner limit is reached. More information can be found on the marathon's website, www.seoul-marathon.com.
10. Even better beds: Koreastay, Goodstay and Hanok Homestay
Technically, only one of these three catchy rhyming government-subsidized programs for budget lodging is new. Hanok Homestay, which supplies lodgings at a traditional Korean-style house, or hanok, and Goodstay, which is simply a logo that indicates endorsement (and at least a degree of vetting) from the Korea Tourist Organization, are both relatively familiar staples on the budget accommodation scene.
Koreastay, however, is relatively new; the current version of the website only just debuted, and rather shakily, sometime in November 2011. But we hope it catches and snowballs by 2012, because it seems like a pretty damn good idea, especially for the offbeat backpacker more interested in language exchange than socks exchange -- although both are important -- or the globe-trotting student traveling on a budget.
Koreastay is similar to Hanok Homestay: your host will likely live in a modern Korean apartment or villa rather than a refurbished hanok. It's a little like paid CouchSurfing, and what you pay for is the guarantee of a hot meal, and well, the guarantee in general.
11. Work and play
Some might say that Koreans are workaholics. We prefer to say that Koreans are great at mixing business and pleasure. And if there was ever a great year for mixing business and pleasure in Seoul, it would be 2012, which was declared the Korea Convention Year by the Korean government.
This means government-subsidized discounts and incentives for qualified conventions held in Korea in 2012. This includes hotel and venue discounts, airline deals, and even bonuses like tickets to traditional performances, tour packages, and souvenirs.
The 2012 Korea Convention Year has also partnered with the Korea MICE Alliance, essentially an alliance of private-sector organizations and government agencies that specializes in conventions. The awkwardly cute acronym, MICE (which stands for Meeting, Incentive, Convention and Exhibition) is also surprisingly effective in describing this partnership.
Essentially the partnership between 2012 Korea Convention Year and MICE means that MICE participants will receive even more benefits. MICE organizers will receive even more subsidies, and on a local level, meetings at MICE Alliance cities means enhanced incentives.
12. A world of music
K-Pop may rule the roost when it comes to Korean music. But Seoul's tastes are still varied enough to attract the big international names in jazz, electronica, indie pop/rock, and heavy metal, as the 2012 concert listings attest.
It begins with a Her Space Holiday show at Club FF on January 7. With a brief respite in the form of Damien Rice's gentle acoustic strums on January 11 at Olympic Hall, and jazz legend Pat Metheney performing at Sejong Arts Center on January 13, we're back to electronica with Justice and Crystal Castles performing at the Seoul Electronic Music Festival in Goyang-si on January 14.
And crowning January 2012 on the 25th is Beirut at Ax Hall.
February is a good month for heavy metal fans, as Judas Priest returns for a show on February 4 at Olympic Hall, Lamb of God performs at Ax Hall on February 12, and Opeth provides a getaway from Valentine's Day on Valentine's Day at V Hall.
Shortly after, on April 7 at Olympic Hall, LMFAO is bringing their "Party Rock Anthem" to Seoul.
More on CNNGo: 50 reasons why Seoul is the world's greatest city