Seoul and Dubai provide two very different takes on the culture, history, cuisine and religion of Asia. What unites them both is a love of shopping and a position on Emirates’ ever-expanding route map.
The airline offers flights to Seoul from five UK airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, and throws in a free stopover in Dubai in either direction. Newcastle Airport will join the list in September.
With this in mind, Korea Tourism Organisation and Dubai’s Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing joined forces to give seven tour operators the chance to experience these two very different and yet complementary destinations.
“As destinations, Seoul and Dubai both offer new cultural experiences and great shopping,” said KTO director Sang Hoon Na.
“Also, with their modern airports served by an increasing number of airlines, such as Emirates, they are developing into major stopover hubs in the Middle and Far East.”
The group took in some of the main sites in the Korean capital – including Gyeongbokgung Palace, the National Folk Museum and Dongdaemun market – visited the nearby Demilitarised Zone that divides the country in two and experienced the offering for passengers transiting at the modern, efficient Incheon airport.
There was also time to watch a performance of traditional Korean music and try plenty of Korea’s distinctive cuisine – from bibimbap to the ubiquitous kimchi.
Seoul highs and lows
- A beginners’ tae kwon do lesson in the courtyard of the Gyeonghuigung Palace places history, culture and high kicks in perfect harmony.
- Food is an inextricable part of the Korean experience and is available everywhere from street vendors to gourmet restaurants.
- The Demilitarised Zone encapsulates the tortured history of this divided country, though at times it can feel like a theme park.
- Although the city is teeming with markets, the shopping experience can be dampened by the language barrier and the unhelpfulness of the vendors.
Dubai highs and lows
- Take a desert safari and feel the exhilaration of hurtling over desert dunes in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
- There may still be a lot of building going on, but there’s a surreal thrill in seeing the emergence of new creations whose only limitation is the imagination of their architects.
- The infrastructure has not kept pace with the explosion in tourism so traffic jams and dangerous driving are commonplace.
- The heat is bearable in the winter but the daily temperature in the summer is above 40C and makes life outside the air conditioned cocoon impossible.
What the operators thought
“Emirates fully lived up to expectations. It is a world-class airline offering fantastic in-flight service and entertainment. Korea is very different from the rest of the Far East. The food is not to everyone’s taste and there were some disappointments, such as the Demilitarised Zone and the shopping.”
Vishal Patel, Travelpack
“Seoul has a very traditional, embedded culture compared with Dubai, which is a busy, ultra-modern city. Both offer a good quality hotel product, with even mid-market hotels of a high standard compared with Europe. Dubai is an easy sell because of the shopping and the Arabic atmosphere, while I would look to sell Seoul as an add-on.”
Roberta Scrace, Japan Travel Centre
“Dubai was fantastic. It has developed hugely in the last 25 years. The Burj Al Arab hotel is glittering and luxurious. Our hotel in Seoul had a good central location, but almost 1,500 rooms, half of which were in the middle of a major refurbishment; the one in Dubai was more intimate, with nice Arabian touches in the bedrooms.”
Wendy Wu, Wendy Wu Tours
“Seoul is a very clean, very modern, bustling city with a good infrastructure, especially the subway. However, the hotel product is not as dynamic as it is in Dubai. It lacks the Gulf state’s diversity, though in part this is because there is not the space or the huge funds available for grandiose developments. Dubai, in contrast, is a multicultural, booming city on the cutting edge of tourism.”
Neil Dunham, CTS Horizons
“Dubai makes an ideal stopover en route to the Far East. It has something for everyone and its plentiful sights make it an easy sell. Korea is a harder sell, though it too offers a wide variety of experiences. From temples to electronics, old and new Seoul coexist, though it was less exotic than I expected. To see the traditional side of the country you have to get beneath the surface, which is that of a typical modern Asian city. “
James Pollard, Magic of the Orient
“Korea certainly makes a good stopover, but it has a tough fight to distinguish itself from the competition. It lacks the identity and range of attractions of destinations such as Japan or China and has a hard time competing with the likes of Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore.”
Robert Kent, Silverbird Travel