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South Korea’s ‘Love Hotels’ Put Out the Welcome Mat for World Cup Fans

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When soccer enthusiasts check into their motel rooms for the World Cup games that begin next week, many will find beds with round mattresses and wall art that runs to the risque.

The Honeymoon Park Inn, Eros Motel, Love-In Park and Valentine Motel are among the suggestively named lodgings being used during the games, which will be jointly hosted by South Korea and Japan from May 31 to June 30.

The explanation lies in simple arithmetic. South Korea is expecting 650,000 World Cup visitors but has only 40,000 regular hotel rooms for them. Tourism authorities have had to commission about 4,000 smaller inns that are known colloquially as “love hotels.”

“This is a place for couples who need some space for themselves,” explains Chung Bung Jo, whose family runs the Eros Motel in Suwon, where the U.S. team will play its first game June 5. He shows off a scrupulously clean room, with a gilt-edged mirror facing a round orange-leather bed. Complimentary toothbrushes and condoms are placed neatly on the bureau.

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Anticipating an influx of foreign tourists, the Eros has installed a special telephone that connects to an interpretation hotline supporting seven languages and has filled its tiny lobby with brochures listing restaurants and attractions. “This is new to us. None of our guests have ever requested these kinds of services,” Chung says, explaining that his inn has never had foreign guests.

In an effort to clean up the image of the love hotels, the country’s Culture and Tourism Ministry has hung official-looking plaques designating them as “World Inns.” Motel managers have been instructed in sanitation and etiquette and received decorating advice.

“They told us to put more tasteful art on the walls,” says Lee Jung Yeon, manager of the Romance Inn, where a black-and-white photograph of a partially clad couple adorns a wall and rooms are furnished with curiously shaped chairs that do not appear to be designed for sitting. “They don’t want the places to be vulgar.”

The use of the love hotels is a delicate subject, as South Koreans are extraordinarily sensitive to how their country will appear during the World Cup--especially since the games are being co-hosted with archrival and former enemy Japan. Officials have planted flowers along busy roads, renovated public toilets, commissioned cheerleading squads and corrected English spelling mistakes in signs. They have spent $2 billion to build soccer stadiums.

Though the foreign visitors are expected to bring in revenue of nearly $800 million, it is also feared that they could expose the country to criticism or even ridicule. Under pressure from the government, a group of dog-meat restaurant owners in Seoul recently canceled plans to distribute free samples of their cuisine outside the World Cup stadiums.

“What happens outside the stadium is as important as what happens inside. This is an opportunity to enhance our image,” says Suwon Mayor Sim Jae Duck, who expects 30,000 to 50,000 visitors to his city--one of 10 South Korean venues for World Cup games. He says he hopes that many of the newly converted “World Inns” can remain part of the tourist infrastructure after the games are over.

The South Korean government says no more than 2% of the hotels being used for World Cup visitors are love hotels. That appears to be the case in Seoul, which has many visitors. But a glance at the motels in a smaller city such as Suwon, 20 miles south of the capital, suggests that most of the accommodations are designed for romantic trysts.

Among the telltale signs are the basement parking lots with vinyl curtains hung at the entrances to prevent nosy passersby from spotting the cars. On a recent weekday afternoon, the only car parked at the Eros Motel had a license plate that was covered with a board.

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“OK, maybe some Koreans are using these inns for purposes of love. But regular travelers use them too. They are cheap and comfortable,” says Choi Won Il, deputy director of the Culture and Tourism Ministry. “Besides, any hotel can be a love hotel. It is the same in every country.”

The phenomenon of the love hotel is even better known in Japan than in South Korea. It is a business that has found a niche in a culture in which unmarried people usually live with their parents in apartments that offer little privacy. The motels can be spotted along any highway, some built like ersatz castles with wild architectural flourishes; others are simple brick boxes clustered together on discreet side streets in South Korean downtowns.

Park Bong Gang, head of the Korean Lodging Assn., says the prevalence of love hotels doesn’t mean that life in South Korea is more licentious. Quite to the contrary, he insists, “Korea is a moral country that lives with Confucian values of respect and decency.”

“In America, people do it in cars or in the park. In Korea you have to be very conscious about selecting a place to have sex,” Park says. “Although the rooms are rented hourly, they aren’t used only for sex. People do rent rooms to play mah-jongg or cards or to drink with their friends.”

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Surprisingly, the motel owners are not wildly enthusiastic about the onslaught of foreign tourists. Business is slow on weekdays, but on weekends, they say, one room can be rented five times in a single day (a room with a shower goes for about $23 and a room with a sauna brings in $55). During the World Cup, rooms may not be rented by the hour, which could mean a considerable loss for some motels.

“Generally we are not happy about it,” says one motel owner, who asked not to be quoted by name. “We were asked by the city to take reservations over the Internet. But we don’t have a computer. We were asked to be kind and polite to customers. But our type of inns don’t function in that way.”


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