For Pyeon Hyun Ja, the plunging euro, falling flight prices and a television show about backpacking grandpas all pointed in one direction: Europe.
“I finally made up my mind after watching TV shows like ‘Grandpas Over Flowers’ that I wanted to see Europe before getting too old,” said the 62-year-old housewife from Seoul, who this month went on a nine-day tour to nations including Austria, the Czech Republic and Hungary with her friends.
A boom in South Korea’s tourism to Europe has boosted the shares of Hana Tour Service Inc. and Modetour Network Inc. to records this month. Interest in the continent surged as the euro plunged 19 percent in the past year against the won and Korean airlines slashed fuel surcharges more than 80 percent. The nation fell in love with the reality show in which four actors in their 70s raced across Europe, getting lost, grumbling about foreign food and pining for lost youth.
“It’s as good as it gets for the travel industry,” said Sung Junewon, analyst at Shinhan Investment Corp. in Seoul. “TV shows are helping fuel demand for high-margin, long-haul travel.”
The number of Koreans traveling abroad using Incheon, the main international airfield, rose 16 percent from a year earlier to 6.15 million in the first three months of this year, according to data by the airport. Traveler numbers to Germany grew 17 percent and those bound for France increased 16 percent.
Hana Tour, the nation’s biggest tour operator by market value, surged 94 percent in the past six months to close at its highest ever on Monday. Modetour, the second largest, climbed 78 percent and touched a record last week. The benchmark Kospi index gained 11 percent in the same time.
Korean Air Lines Co. plans to expand charter flights to Europe this summer to meet rising demand, the nation’s largest carrier said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
“Even after the positive share performance this year, there’s further room for them to rise given industry fundamentals are so strong,” Justin Kim, analyst at NH Investment & Securities Co. said by phone in Seoul on April 13.
While Korea’s rising currency is hurting earnings at the nation’s major exporters, the strength is boosting spending power for tourists overseas. The won has gained against all but four of the 31 major currencies worldwide tracked by Bloomberg over the past 12 months. Crude has plunged 46 percent in New York during the same period, reducing flight costs.
Grandpas Over Flowers is now into its fourth season, where its stars visited Greece. In previous series, the program traveled to countries including Austria, Taiwan and Spain. South Korea’s population is aging faster than any other OECD country, with the population over 65 set to triple by 2060.
The won climbed 0.4 percent to 1,079.21 a dollar and gained 0.3 percent to 1,163.26 per euro on Monday. The three-year sovereign yield was at 1.69 percent, below the central bank’s benchmark rate of 1.75 percent.
For Sung Chang Hoon, head of equities at Shinhan BNP Paribas Asset Management Co., stock gains have already priced in increasing overseas travel.
Hana Tour trades at 28.5 times projected 12-month earnings, the highest in at least five years, while Modetour is valued at 18.2 times. The Kospi has a multiple of 11.2.
“While travel demand will continue rising, I think expectations are already in the market,” Sung said in Seoul in an interview on April 14. “It’s time to take profit.”
Government action to support the nation’s biggest companies may reverse gains in the won, curbing Koreans’ interest in globetrotting. The Bank of Korea has cut its benchmark interest rates three times since August.
Exports fell in each of the last three months and the central bank on April 9 lowered its 2015 projections for overseas sales and economic growth, while shipments to the European Union shrank more than 20 percent in the first quarter. Hyundai Motor Co., Korea’s largest automaker, reported a 14 percent drop in net income for 2014 as it sold fewer vehicles abroad.
Declining costs and improving demand will help increase earnings at Korean travel operators, according to Kim Young Il, head of equities at Korea Investment Management Co.
Hana Tour boosted fourth-quarter net income by 51 percent to 8.9 billion won ($8.2 million) from a year earlier, according to Bloomberg data. Modetour’s revenues jumped 14 percent in the same three-month period from the previous year.
“Lower oil prices as well as the stronger won are reducing people’s burden for overseas trips, lifting demand,” Kim said by phone in Seoul on April 14. Korea Investment counts Hana Tour shares among its $32 billion worth of assets. “I don’t expect fundamentals on the shares to deteriorate in the short term.”
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