The Tourism Paparazzi
The tourism industry in Korea is on point. With hundreds of festivals, social media groups, and weekly events and programs, it’s so easy to find things to do in the city of Seoul and other areas of the country. A lot of trips and programs are specifically geared towards foreigners, and this last weekend was no exception.
I signed up for a trip that promised a visit to a newly renovated mine cave that they had hopes of attracting more foreign visitors to. They would provide a free 45-minute private bus ride from Seoul as well as 15,000 won (about $15) to use at the town’s local market. Essentially, they were paying us to travel to the neighboring town of Gwangmyeong for the day. Sounded like a win-win situation to me!
Upon arriving at the cave, we were greeted by smiling Koreans, many asking each of us where we’re from, and then snapping a posed picture. After being in Korea for almost a year, this wasn’t particularly unusual. Most Koreans, especially at a touristy spot, are incredibly welcoming and curious of your presence, the brave English-speaking ones approaching for more information. I was a little caught off guard by the sheer number of Korean “reporters”, but continued following the trail toward the cave.
When we reached the mouth of the cave, there were even more cameras. They distributed helmets, grouped us up, and took photos for about five minutes, yelling instructions for poses or funny things to say. I also noticed that anyone who was Korean, or even of Asian descent, was politely asked to step out of the frame. They only wanted the foreigners displayed. This was about the time I was starting to wonder what exactly I’d unknowingly signed myself up for.
When we started our cave tour and I realized the man with the spotlight on his camera would be following our every move in the otherwise dark cave, I fished around for answers from my accompanying group members. With a little help from our guide, we came to the conclusion that we were the models for their new promotional materials to attract more foreigners to the cave. In case the same idea crossed your mind as did mine: no, we were never asked permission or to sign a release form. Only in Korea.
When we moved from the cave to the local market, our cameramen followed. We were filmed and photographed throughout the narrow aisles and they even squeezed inside the tiny restaurant to record us eating lunch. Between every bite or drink, they asked us to smile, give a toast, clink our glasses, pat our bellies and express how delicious everything tasted. I’ve never been camera shy, but this was just bizarre. Part of me reveled in their undivided attention, while the other part was simply annoyed. Is this how a celebrity feels amid paparazzi?
It became a sort of game with my fellow tourists and me as we toured the market. Who can attract the most camera clicks? The strategy was simple. Simply look at the oranges: “click.” Pick up an orange: “click, click, click.” Buy an orange: “CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, (take a bite) CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK, CLICK!!!”
When we made our way back to Seoul and no one wanted to take my picture anymore, it was bittersweet. I’d gotten my 15 seconds of fame; it was fun, but I’m more than happy my life is not always in the spotlight.