PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- The winter air blows strong and sharp in this northeastern county of South Korea. And for the uninitiated, the below-zero temperatures could be blistering.
Traffic is sparse on the wide roads of gray that cut through white slopes lined by leafless trees.
But the seemingly frozen scene thaws -- so to speak -- in certain parts of this alpine town and its neighboring Gangneung, where there remains a certain glow as a new winter sets in after their hosting of the 2018 Winter Olympics earlier this year.
As fresh snow falls, these Olympic sites about a two-and-a-half-hour drive away from Seoul glisten anew, buzzing in alpine activity.
Images and larger-than-life statues of Soohorang, the tiger mascot of the February 2018 Winter Olympics, and Bandabi, the bear mascot for the 2018 Paralympics held a month later, are fixtures on Olympic venues and major public spots, welcoming locals and visitors alike.
And while the Olympics are many seasons past, they are still magnets for photos.
The cold has not turned off activity as there is always something to do and somewhere to go.
The ski slopes bustle with adventure seekers young and old, garbed in thick and colorful alpine gear. Ice rinks fill with skaters both casual and pro, with Korean dance music setting the tone.
And tourists of many tongues, including those from countries where snow never comes, have joined the action.
It is with such variety of activities and unique experience that South Korea hopes to attract more Filipino travelers to a winter escape here, banking on the appeal of a season they never experience at home.
This month, the Korean Tourism Organization (KTO) brought Filipino travel agents to a winter tour of Pyeongchang and Gangneung, aiming to inspire new travel packages that could bring more Philippine tourists here during the season.
And apparently, Filipinos have been warming up to the idea.
Apart from spring, a favorite for travelers for its moderate weather and the beautiful view of the cherry blossoms, winter is becoming a popular season for Filipinos to travel here, according to Philippine ambassador to South Korea Raul Hernandez.
“Filipinos visit Korea to experience winter and the activities related to that season. During winter, the Philippines has a lot of holidays allowing Filipinos to take vacations abroad and experience a different weather and season,” Hernandez told ABS-CBN News when reached in Seoul.
“Because of its proximity, Korea has become a favorite destination,” he said.
Some 400,000 Filipinos took the three-and-a-half hour flight from Manila to Seoul in 2017, a figure that represents a steady increase over the last five years, Hernandez noted.
Many come in groups -- families or friends -- enticed by the cool weather, shopping options and, of course, Korean pop culture and K-dramas that have been hugely popular back home, he said.
Travel agents are noting the increasing interest too.
“Mostly, they (tourists) really want to go to Korea during winter; kulang lang ang (they just don’t have enough) information about it, like what to do because some think walang gagawin kasi sobrang lamig. Pero maraming puwedeng gawin (there’s nothing to do because it’s too cold, but there are many things you can do),” said Lyn Mendoza of International Journeys Inc., a travel agency in Malate, Manila.
She said South Korea is among top preferred destinations of their clients, along with Hong Kong and Japan.
Her company even had tour packages focusing on shooting locations of popular Korean dramas “Descendants of the Sun” and “Goblin.” All-in winter packages for a stay of 5 days and 4 nights could run up to about P35,000, she said.
Mendoza noted that Filipino tourists who used to be anxious about bearing the bitter winter cold, which in South Korea could get as low as minus-20 degrees Celsius, were braving the season as thermal clothing has become more affordable too.
Charito Vega Mina of Adam’s Express Travel said Korea, along with Japan, were “in demand” among clients.
“Maybe because it’s cheaper now… Maybe because ang mga Pinoy, sabik sa snow (Filipinos are eager to see snow). It’s just that the number one problem still is that sometimes people are afraid to apply for a visa,” she said.
Filipinos are required to apply for a visa to travel to Korea, except for the holiday island of Jeju. Requirements include bank certificates and other documents that prove a traveler’s financial capability.
Korea is also gaining popularity in the Filipino-Chinese market, a specialty of Uni-Orient Travel Inc. based in Binondo, Manila.
“Usually, there is a high percentage of people of older age, 40s and above, going to Korea for the colder weather, beauty products,” said travel agent Abby So.
Most of her clients are upper-class Filipino-Chinese families who have already experienced autumn in Korea and would like to “venture into new experiences” through a winter trip.
KOREAN RESORT FOCUSES ON FILIPINO MARKET
Even South Korea’s largest ski resort, YongPyong Resort in this county, has taken notice of the increase in Filipino travelers.
“Our usual customers are from Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore… But then from last year, we have been focusing on the Philippines,” said YongPyong Resort’s sales and marketing director Ing-Kyu Choi.
He cited how there were “patterns” in the tourism industry.
“It’s not all countries coming to Korea. Sometimes it’s Korea, next it could be Japan. Recently, from last year, there has been an increase in Filipinos coming to Korea, especially this year,” he said.
“That’s why with the connection of KTO, we are focusing our marketing on Filipinos,” he said.
YongPyong, a 1,740-hectare resort located at about 700 meters above sea level, is South Korea’s first modern and largest ski resort. It has 28 ski slopes and 14 lifts, and has served as a venue for international alpine sports competitions, including the 2018 Winter Olympics.
It has a total of 2,395 rooms in 10 hotels and condominiums, and offers a variety of activities across all four seasons, including an indoor water park, a golf course, luge and mountain bike courses, and a gondola ride to a 1,450-meter peak with a spectacular sunset view.
For a family of four, a 3-day, 2-night stay could cost about $1,500. Choi said autumn and winter are popular seasons at the resort.