Madame Tussauds comes to Korea FINALLY! Will it last?

The world’s best known brand of waxwork museums, Madame Tussauds, has opened up a new attraction in South Korea. British based live attractions company Merlin Entertainments has brought a temporary display of it’s famous celebrity wax figures to the sixth floor of Shinsegae Centum City, the world’s largest department store, located in Busan. A special wax figure of singer/actor/Hallyu superstar Kim Hyun Joong has been created especially for the exhibit and will go on display in December. Although the attraction is currently temporary, it may become permanent if it attracts enough visitors. The question is will it be popular enough?


For the past two summers, I worked at a theme park in the UK owned by Merlin. We would often be told about all the new attractions that the company was opening worldwide and particularly how fast they are expanding in Asia. As I saw a Madame Tussauds being opened in Shanghai, Bangkok, Hong Kong…it always amazed me that there was nothing in Korea! The ‘Korean wave’ is becoming such a huge income generator for the country’s economy and tourism industry that it just seemed like the perfect place. Madame Tussauds’ popularity thrives on the idea of celebrity and Korea is quickly becoming the centre of pop culture in East Asia.


Busan International Film Festival logo 2012

Busan International Film Festival 2012 was held in October

It’s interesting that they have chosen Busan rather than Seoul. Busan, Korea’s second largest city at the opposite end of the country, is already quite established as a tourist destination, known for it’s beaches, seafood and beautiful surrounding area. In recent years the city has also been trying to attract visitors through huge festivals and conventions. The Busan International Film Festival is now one of the most important film festivals in Asia attracting some of Korea’s biggest stars as well as a huge audience every year. However the city still doesn’t have the same glamourous image as the one portrayed of Seoul to international audiences of K-pop and KDramas.


2PM American Thai Chinese band member Nichkhun's waxwork at Madame Tussauds Bangkok

2PM American Thai-Chinese band member Nichkhun’s waxwork at Madame Tussauds Bangkok

There is no doubt that a Korean Madame Tussauds would prove a very popular attraction for the growing number of visitors with an insatiable desire to get up close and personal with their favourite Korean celebrities. Korean stars have already proved their popularity at the other Asian attractions with Kim Hyun-joong’s Boys Over Flowers co-star Lee Minho and 2PM member Nichkhun’s likenesses already on display at Madame Tussauds Shanghai and Bangkok. Actor Bae Yong Joon, famous for his role in Winter Sonata, one of the dramas responsible for the beginning of the Korean wave in Asia, also has a place in Madame Tussauds Hong Kong. The question is whether the new Busan attraction will provide enough of a draw to bring in visitors with such strong competition from Seoul.


Seoul has become a kind of Mecca for Korean pop culture fans. From the chance to see the filming locations of hundreds of famous dramas to the ability to be in the audience of music TV shows and see their favourite K-pop stars perform, Seoul offers a such a huge number of opportunities to Hallyu fans. Not to mention the constant looming, if somewhat unlikely, possibility that you may just bump into one of your favourite stars on the street. There is no way that Busan can compare with this for a tourist whose principle motivation is to experience Hallyu for themselves.


This doesn’t mean it won’t draw in large numbers of visitors. Places like Madame Tussauds, Merlin likes to call them midway attractions, are not the primary reason that tourists choose to travel to a city anywhere in the world. What they can offer is an unusual experience which forms a small part of an overall trip. This might be attractive to travellers who come for different reasons and want to incorporate a little bit of Korea’s celebrity culture into their trip. This might even been travellers who aren’t interested in Korean pop culture as the majority of the current display is notable figures from the West and the rest of Asia found at other Tussauds worldwide. If the display of Korean celebrities does grow it could also influence repeat visitors to Korea to expand the range of their travels beyond Seoul and spread the value of Hallyu tourism throughout the country.


From the company’s point of view, this exhibit offers very little risk of failure. The venue was already provided by the department store, it’s unlikely that it won’t enjoy some kind of success, at least in the short term and even if it isn’t successful, as one of Korea’s most popular stars in the rest of Asia, Kim Hyun-joong’s figure is bound to still be a popular display at Shanghai, Bangkok or Hong Kong.


We are yet to see if this new attraction will prove to be a popular one. There is no doubt in my mind that Madame Tussauds has a valuable place in Korea’s increasingly Hallyu-dominated tourism industry. The question is whether the placement of Madame Tussauds Busan, so far outside of the hub of the industry, will hurt it’s chances of success.


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