Pokémon Go and Google get South Korean mappers thinking

British millennial travellers are willing to travel far and wide to play Pokémon Go and an arbitrary glitch in the gaming system has put South Korea on the map

An unlikely winner of the Pokémon Go phenomenon is a small-town seaside town in northeastern region of South Korea. Usually an escape for mountain hikers and beachgoers, Sokcho, with its population of 80,000, is one of a few places in the country where gaming-mad Koreans are able to play the location-based augmented reality game. Nearby Uleungdo Island is another.

When the game launched in mid-July, South Korea was excluded because of government restrictions that prevent it from accessing Google Maps data, which its location-based services require to work. However, according to a report by Associated Press, South Korean officials have claimed that an arbitrary glitch in the gaming system mistakenly classified Sokcho as being in the US. 

This week, however, news emerged that the Korean government’s ‘Map Service Export Council’ was considering whether to allow Google to make use of detailed map data, which would allow people to play across the country. Perhaps they have been liaising with the Department of Tourism, which has seen how the Niantic-developed game has given a little-known town a massive tourism boost and put it on the global map.

According to metasearch hotels.com, in the UK searches for ‘Sokcho, Korea’ rose by 95% year-on-year between July 10 and July 19, which the firm argues is obviously linked directly to the launch of Pokémon Go.

Local South Korean travel firms have also seen a rise in searches on Sokcho, which have translated into hotel bookings. Hotel booking website, Interpark, one of the three top travel agencies in South Korea, saw four times more room nights booked in the week it became possible to play in Sokcho versus the previous week. 

On Auction, the South Korean arm of eBay, tour agencies began selling round-trip bus tours to Sokcho, calling the destination 'Pallet Town', the home town of a main protagonist in the game. Before long, bus tickets from the capital Seoul had sold out. Like everywhere else in the world, all manner of Sokcho businesses including restaurants and hotels scrambled to make the most of the influx of visitors. One hotel, Ramada Hotel reportedly promised three free hotel stay packages to visitors who successful captured three monsters in the city. Also taking advantage of the opportunity was the town mayor who uploaded a video inviting gamers to come and sample local delicacies; he used Twitter to inform the public of Wifi hotspots. On social media Sokcho has been described as “the only Pokémon holy land on the peninsula”.

If government moves to give Google Maps the go-ahead across South Korea, the local travel scene, which Min Yoon CEO and founder of South Korean OTA TideSquare recently described as ‘brutally competitive’, stands to benefit from the gaming phenomenon. There are, Yoon told a WebinTravel audience in London, 17,000 small travel agencies in South Korea; the big three - HanaTour, Interpark and Modetour – control just 13% of the market.

A wider effort

The rise in search for Sokcho on Hotels.com was part of a wider effort for the meta to understand how its UK-based customers were responding to the gaming mania.

Simon Matthews, who has been given the title of official Gym Leader at Hotels.com, says it is only fair that “we do everything we can to help our customers chase down Pokéstops around the globe”. Hotels.com even has a team of “techiemons” on the case, looking at how to can integrate a ‘Pokétels’ algorithm into the hotels.com mobile app.

The hotel metasearch asked 500 British millennials how Pokémon Go was affecting their travel plans with some surprising results. Of those that took part 6% said they wouldn’t rule out travelling to North Korea in search of Pokémon. Other unusual destinations included the Australian outback (13%), the Arctic Circle (9%), Mount Everest (9%), the North Pole (8%) and the Outer Hebrides (6%).

For the more mainstream, however, if Seoul becomes a hot Pokémon spot South Korea could benefit from an even bigger rise in possible inbound travel from the UK.

A nation of mobile gamers (before it even became possible to play the game, over 400,000 Koreans had downloaded the app), the Pokémon craze in South Korea could also give the already fast-growing outbound travel segment a further boost. In 2015, the number of Korean ‘outbounders’ rose by 21% to 17,885 million versus a rise of just 9% in 2014. 

As the Korean government prevaricates over how to handle Google Maps, for Korean gamers fed up with packed buses and small hometowns, nearby Japan, where the game officially launched last Friday along with a McDonald’s sponsorship, could be the next stop. They won’t be the only ones. British travellers, according to hotels.com, see Kyoto as one of the top 10 cities where they are most likely to stumble upon a Pikachu.

But perhaps they won’t need to. In an interview with Reuters Niantic CEO John Hanke said that he expects to ultimately launch Pokemon Go in Korea, and that there are other ways to get around the Google Maps dispute.

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