May 18, 2005
ㅡ A major chunk of the hotel industry in Korea comprises so-called "love hotels," a phrase that conjures the deservingly seedy image of neon refuges for adulterers, midnight lovers and anyone else escaping the scrutiny of friends or relatives.
Love hotels are recognizable by their often gaudy, castle-like exteriors and distinctive features to disguise their clientele, such as special barriers to shield the license plates in the parking lot. But love hotel owners are transforming the image of their establishments, upgrading them from cheap lust shacks to respectable getaways for married couples and lovers.
Photographer Lee Jun-sang, 36, has been married for three years and has a 1-year-old daughter. On the weekends, he drives around searching for love hotels with his wife.
"In the beginning, my wife waved her hand in disapproval saying it is embarrassing to go to such a place," Mr. Lee said. "When she actually went there, she said, ‘Wow, this is a real luxury hotel,' and was quite surprised. Nowadays, it is my wife that gives me a sign first."
A chief executive officer of an electronic parts maker only identified as Mr. Kim, 48, calls himself a "love hotel maniac." "I live together with my 70-something mother. My eldest child is a college student. Though I am pushing 50 years old, my wife and I also want to have time of our own." Mr. Kim goes to a love hotel with his wife the last weekend of each month. He joined a love hotel Internet cafe, and now enjoys reading reviews posted by its members and trying out different love hotels.
At one love hotel ― only mysteriously identified as L hotel in Gangnam in southern Seoul ― frequented by Mr. Kim, one side of the wall in a room was covered with rose decorations, and a hotel manager was hanging balloons. There was a bottle of champagne as well.
"A customer requested a small event for a wedding anniversary over the Internet," the manager said. "About five married couples come here each week to celebrate wedding anniversaries."
Rooms have a variety of themes. The red room represents passion while the blue room reminds one of a calm sea.
A jacuzzi, steam sauna, bidet, DVD player and high-speed Internet are among standard options. The suite room has a 100-inch television screen. The daily rate is only 60,000 won ($60) to 90,000 won.
Despite the upbeat, four-star hotel amenities, the manager still admits it is hard to escape the lingering stigma that the place might be a venue for adultery.
"We know right away whether the customers are adulterers or not," the manager confidently asserts. "These days, adulterers are only one couple out of 10."
A few years ago, residents in Goyang, Gyeonggi province, made newspaper headlines after demonstrating in front of love hotels. The original love hotel ― named the "Parktel" ― was built in the mid-1980s.
Before the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games, the government encouraged hotels to upgrade their facilities. Low-grade hotels and inns took out low-interest loans and remodeled. With the economic boom that followed the Olympics, the entertainment industry blossomed. Then, these hotels had signs that read "Parktel" and often charged by the hour rather than per night and acquired the ignominious moniker "love hotel."
The hotels advertised that they were equipped with waterbeds and promised privacy and anonymity.
Love hotels proliferated through big cities, rural towns and mountain areas around the country. But love hotels were hit hard during the 1997-98 economic crisis, by residents' protests and most recently the ban on prostitution.
However, love hotels are changing, parting with the stigma that they were a breeding area for decadence and prostitution.
Now, the hotels are trying to become a legitimate place for love. The love hotel rooms are getting rid of their red-light district feel and are being reinvented, offering amenities one would expect at more expensive hotels.
"The recent remodeling boom by love hotels is due to a realization that to survive they have to upgrade their services and eliminate the kinds of stigmas they are associated with," said Lee Gil-won, a motel consultant.
Their main customers are married couples who want privacy as well as young couples. Some students use the place to study together, relax or watch a movie, often taking advantage of high-end audio systems in the rooms.
There are several areas where love hotels have proliferated in surprising numbers: Teheran Street near Yeoksam station in the Gangnam district, by Nambu Terminal in Seocho-dong, Bangi station in Jamsil and the area near the Nakwon market in Jongno.
They have neat exteriors and cozy interiors as well as metered parking. Most of all, customers who patronize these places are changing. They are no longer shy but daring.
Recently, love hotels stress that they are a place for weary urban residents to relax. Jelly Hotel in Gangnam district has rooms with a billiard table. A suite room in Mate Hotel in Suwon has an outdoor bath.
"There are more than 11 love hotels in this area," said Kang Min-seok, a hotel manager. "They give away discount coupons. Some places charge 50,000 won per night including breakfast."
With growing competition, the hotels are constantly upgrading their service. Disposable bathroom goods such as shampoo, soap and lotion are all offered. Refrigerators are filled with health drinks. Waterbeds and so-called love chairs are long gone.
"Customers do not like vulgar items on display," said Lee Gyeong-su, a Jelly Hotel manager.
Im Jun-hyeong, a college sophomore, goes to a love hotel once every week. "There aren't suitable places for five to six people to talk at night," Mr. Im said. "The costs are similar to going to a cafe."
Sinchon, a college area, is also famous for a high concentration of love hotels. It is not difficult to see students in groups patronizing love hotels.
"The mid-term period is the peak season," said an owner of a hotel there. "Brighter lights were installed for studying."
On the weekend, the 90 rooms in the Nunu Hotel in Jongno in central Seoul were already full by the afternoon. Some couples were on a waiting list.
Another young couple was going through DVD titles while waiting. The customers did not seem embarrassed about coming here.
"Sometimes families come here to stay during the weekend, but the majority of them are unmarried couples in their 20s and 30s," a manager said.
"We watch a movie on a large screen, browse the Internet and use the sauna," said Jo Young-seok, 28. Mr. Jo said he uses a love hotel once every week with his girlfriend. "The price of 30,000 won is quite reasonable. Sex is not the purpose but an option."
WHERE TO GO
Love hotels are aiming at a younger crowd wanting to socialize with their friends or couples looking for a four-star hotel experience at a two-star price. Here are a few fun ones.
Located in Yeoksam-dong, southern Seoul, this hotel has an oxygen generator and Japanese bath. Special events such for birthdays and wedding anniversaries are available. (www.imihotel.co.kr
This hotel in Jangan-dong in Seoul has a large-screen television and excellent audio systems. DVD titles are free with room rental.
Yeongtong Plaza Hotel
The Yeongtong in Suwon has rooms larger than 40 square meters (430 square feet) as well as a steam sauna and business center. (www.ytplazahotel.com
Located in Bucheon, it has an automatic cashier system in the parking lot. Free international calls are available. (www.koboshotel.co.kr
Located in Uijeongbu, rooms have two twin beds as well as a unique interior.
In Boryeong, South Chungnam province, rooms have a sea view. There is also a pet-sitter service. (www.hotel-view.co.kr
In Horim-dong in Daegu, this hotel has a drive-in window for room rentals. Breakfast is available. (www.hotel3f10.com
by Choi Min-woo, Nam Koong-wook <firstname.lastname@example.org