South Korea is not a cheap place to live or visit. It’s a country with a lot to offer and Seoul is a fascinating place in which to live and work, but it is the third most expensive city in the world for expats in terms of housing, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment costs. Visitors don’t get off lightly either. For example, Seoul is the most expensive city in the world if you want a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice from the coffee shop of a luxury hotel, beating out both Tokyo and Paris by about $3.50.
The prices are high, yes. But how high they appear to be depends on where one has been living before coming here. When I arrived here, my American friends were much more shocked by the price of books than I was, coming from Canada. However, these days, even the Japanese are struck by the costs here and Korean newspapers report that some Koreans are headed to Japan to shop. According to the Korea Times in April 2007, “Incoming foreign tourists have found that it is more costly to travel to and in the country (Korea) than other Asian nations, which negatively affects the local tourism industry. …..For instance, prices of tourism-related articles are about 4.6 times higher than those in Thailand…”
Yes, the increasing value of the won and the decreasing strength of the US dollar are helping Korea appear more expensive. But that’s just part of the picture.
That expats pay more for housing is nothing new in Korea, regardless of the quality and location. Hotel costs are either very high (over $300/night) or very low, but there are almost no options in the middle price/quality range. That said, we’re told that both the central government and Seoul City are working to find solutions to these problems. So far the efforts to find hotel owners willing to offer mid-price options has not been very successful. And it may be that only legislation will eliminate the practice of obliging foreign companies to pay two or more years advance rent for their incoming staff.
The cost of food is high, especially for imports or for locally produced but western-influenced produce and products. Selecting traditional vegetables, fruits, etc. can be more economical and so can eating in ordinary Korean restaurants. However, home grown rice – a staple of the Korean diet - is three to five times more expensive than rice in other parts of the world. Costs may come down for some products once the Korea/US and the Korea/European Union free trade agreements are ratified. Foreign residents, who want to spend less, learn to shop in different locations, to compare prices, and to find alternatives (when possible) to stores that target the foreign community.
That said it is often difficult for non-Koreans to save as much as locals do in the fresh or traditional markets. In the supermarkets, items are clearly priced and that price is the one all consumers pay, regardless of their ethnicity. In the markets, prices are not usually marked and what is quoted to a foreign customer is generally higher than for Koreans. There is still a prevalent belief that Westerners are all Americans and that all Americans are rich. Foreign customers in various service areas are also perceived as not being trustworthy, so they are required to pay hefty deposits for cell phones and other services.
Rental phones for short term use (since most cell phones from other countries do not work in Korea) can be a big expense for visitors. Energy and fuel is equally expensive for everyone, however, as are the costs of many forms of entertainment. Tours agencies also charge quite high rates compared to other Asian destinations with more known attractions.
Seoul and the rest of South Korea have a lot to offer visitors and foreign investors, but the high costs of life here are making this a less attractive destination than it should be. That said, it is possible to find less expensive alternatives in most areas if you have the time, patience, creativity and flexibility to look beyond the obvious.
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