Prostitution, extramarital affairs, one night stands… these are the words often associated with motels in South Korea. This is where you go to have sex, shame attached.
But over the past decade, motels in South Korea have seen an interesting rebirth of sorts: Their shady image is shifting towards that of a place to study, hang out among friends, or even just enjoy quiet “me time” in a private space. It’s not all about sex. And more people are less ashamed.
Motel interiors, too, are breaking away from the tack and kink that was once part of their reputation. Some bedrooms come equipped with billiard rooms, VR experience stations, swimming pools (that’s right), glamping rooftops, and everything in between. (Okay, prison-cell themed rooms do still exist.)
“I’m not ashamed of going, nor am I afraid. They’ve seriously upped their game in recent times,” said Lee Soo-bin, a 21-year-old female office worker and frequent motel-goer. “I sometimes go with my boyfriend, but at other times I go alone for mo-kangseu to have a bath since my house doesn’t have one,” she said, referring to the new buzz-portmanteau meaning ‘motel-vacances.’
My first experience, back in 2006, wasn’t as nice. I arrived at Sokcho Bus Terminal on the East coast of South Korea; I asked the nearby tourist kiosk where I could sleep the night, and was directed to a nearby motel. Wasn’t this a pseudo-brothel? What would await me inside? Innocent self that I was, my heart was palpitating, faced with the flashing neon lights and shady entrance that I had to walk through.
There was no lobby, just a small low-rise window no more than 20 square centimeters through which appeared a pair of anonymous hands. Several fingers indicated the number of 10,000 won (now worth $9.40) bills to pay. I was given a key in return, the room number written on it.
The cigarette stench in the corridor mixed with air freshner wasn’t pleasant. Placed on my bed was a ‘welcome pack’: It included several condoms, lubricating gel, desensitizing cream, and the likes. Well, at least that saved me the embarrassment from buying such necessities had I, well, felt the need.
I turned on the television. It was pre-tuned to a pornographic channel.
There was no check-out the next morning: I simply placed the key inside a basket hanging inside the elevator. And that was it.
‘Taboo’ seems to be often associated with motels, known for years as places of vice, secrecy, and adultery. But things have changed rapidly in the past decade, owing in part to the popularization of accommodation booking platforms that specialize in motels.
A double-entendre for “Hey, let’s play” and “Let’s have nighttime fun,” Yanolja was founded by motel janitor-turned-entrepreneur Lee Su-jin. Dismayed by the motel industry’s bad reputation, Lee decided to improve its image and appeal to a wider customer base.
In 2016, 23,741 “inns” (the official category that includes properties commonly referred to as “motels”) were registered in South Korea, with a total annual revenue of 2.92 trillion won ($2.74 billion), according to Statistics Korea. When combined with other small accommodations including guesthouses and B&Bs, this number jumped to include 46,488 establishments, and revenues to 3.92 trillion won ($3.68 billion). The hotel industry in comparison, generated 3.71 trillion won ($3.48 billion) in room sales.
Before Yanolja there was no online booking platform for motels. For the most part, they didn’t — and still don’t — appear on hotel booking sites such as Expedia (as many travelers during February’s Pyeongchang Olympic discovered): Most customers simply turned up at the anonymous front desk and exchanged banknotes for a key.
Accommodation booking websites and apps like Yanolja have transformed the domestic motel — and hotel — industry. They list each motel’s features, providing dozens of photos of each type of room.
“It’s not that features like themed rooms didn’t already exist, it’s just that there was no systemized way for showing, searching for, or comparing them. It was difficult to know what you’d be getting,” Yanolja spokesperson MK Song told Korea Exposé.
With fierce competition, motels now seek to lure guests with the most eye-catching photos. “We kitted our rooms out with decorations like superhero themes and amenities such as large jacuzzis to differentiate ourselves from other nearby businesses,” said one motel owner in Seoul’s Jongno District who refused to be named. “The motel booking websites have opened up a new kind of competition,” he said.
A survey conducted by research firm OpenSurvey found that approximately 68 percent of motel operators agreed or strongly agreed that booking apps had increased their revenues. The poll also found that operators believed apps like Yanolja had helped improve the image of motels.
It is now not uncommon to step into a motel lobby and eat popcorn while waiting to check-in. Or coffee. Or ice cream for that matter. Some are even equipped with gyms.
“Young couples are more open and adventurous than ever before. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Motels can now be seen as cultural spaces where they can enjoy entertainment and even holidays — beyond dating,” said Song of Yanolja. “It’s not all about nightly activities. People are going to motels for parties, games, karaoke, film-watching, business trips, and even to study,” he added.
After all, this is an industry where you can book a room for a few hours at a time, a system known as daesil.
“I love daesil,” said motel enthusiast Lee. “You can rent a room for 9 hours for as little as 25,000 won ($23.50). That option is super popular amongst university students.”
Out The House
In his book What Do Cities Live On?, Hongik University architecture professor Yoo Hyun-joon writes, “In South Korea, although the economy has developed, there is limited space due to country’s small territory. The higher the income, the higher the desire for private space.” Yoo argues that modern-day houses have failed to keep up with the demand for such private space.
That’s where motels come in: “At a time when the individual’s desires and lack of space are at odds, the market economy has created a culture centered on bang (“rooms”) such as noraebang (karaoke), video bang (private rooms for watching DVDs), PC bang (internet gaming cafés), and even room salons. Our culture of sealed rooms is not the product of the nation’s love of rooms, but of solutions created by combining desire and spatial constraints,” Yoo writes.
In South Korea, the earliest version of the motel emerged in the 1980s when the government set out on a full-scale “modernization” mission to accommodate large-scale events such as the 1986 Asian Games and 1988 Seoul Olympics. This led to a significant rise in tax exemptions and bank loans for small inn operators. They would revamp themselves to lure foreign tourists, renaming themselves as ‘parktels’ or ‘motels.’
These new words sounded modern and sophisticated, according Lee Na-young, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University. Business owners adopted the steaming hot-spring ‘♨’ mark to indicate they offered fully-equipped bathroom facilities. But this symbol, originally used at rural Japanese bathhouses, had also come to symbolize prostitution in Japanese cities; the latter meaning also spread to South Korea.
With post-Olympic economic development, new roads and highways, the end of the 1980s heralded the start of South Korea’s “my-car era,” an age of one car per household. This meant greater mobility — and more opportunities for motels to appear at key road junctions and transportation terminals.
By the early 1990s, motels gained a notorious reputation, as shady places for adultery, prostitution, and even hidden cameras. Motel buildings — again, as in Japan — were designed to grab the attention of passersby with kitsch fairytale palace exteriors and themed rooms.
South Korean motels didn’t shy away from their key customer segment — people looking for places to have sex — putting secrecy at the heart of their operations. They added curtains at car park entrances to obscure customers’ license plates, and built discreet front desks, small bedroom windows, and anonymous check-out systems.
Motel or Hotel?
Nowadays, the lines between what constitutes a hotel and motel are often blurred. Around Seoul, it’s easy to see motels that have taken to calling themselves ‘hotels,’ simply by replacing the ‘m’ with an ‘h.’
Hotels are usually thought of as providing furnished rooms, room service, restaurants, breakfast, entertainment spaces and even meeting areas. Motels, on the other hand, don’t provide much more than a bedroom.
The Jongno motel owner confessed that he had rebranded his establishment a ‘hotel’ a few years back in order to reflect an improvement in the quality of his facilities and to not deter would-be South Korean and foreign customers, weary of the lingering stigma associated with the word ‘motel.’
In 1999, South Korea’s Public Health Act was was replaced by the Public Health Control Act. The former act divided lodging businesses into hotels, inns, and lodgings with shared bathrooms, and stipulated the facilities that should be provided as standard in each category. But the new law omitted these standards and criteria, allowing motels to rebrand themselves as ‘hotels.’
It’s not misleading, it’s just that they cannot call themselves ‘tourist hotels’ unless they abide by more stringent standards as stipulated by the Tourism Promotion Law. (A quick search on the ministry’s tourist hotel database reveals that many of the motel-cum-hotels I visited during the course of writing this article were not tourist hotels.)
Meanwhile, Yanolja came up with “H Avenue,” a new concept merging the motel and the hotel. The first H Avenue hotel opened in 2017. At first glance, the Konkuk branch of H Avenue in Seoul looks much like any other hotel: a large lobby, reception, eatery, coffee shop and a rooftop pool. It feels expensive, with decoration inspired by movie The Grand Budapest Hotel. But while the rooms are stunning, they are reminiscent of motels.
“Our rooms are fully booked at weekends, and offer the same levels of comfort as a hotel, but at the price of a motel,” said Moon Dong-seon, manager of H Avenue, Konkuk branch. “Many of our customers are women who rent rooms to host pajama parties.”
A party room at such motel/hotels, capable of accommodating large groups, can cost approximately 200-300 dollars a night, while an equivalent hotel room could run to over a thousand dollars.
Yanolja also started its own in-house research program and shop, Best-Stay Lab, in order to develop a set of industry best practices, products, and eco-friendly amenities.
A model motel room on display at the company’s headquarters in Gangnam, Seoul, educates motel owners on the importance of clean, hygienic, and tasteful interiors, in turn improving the quality of rooms and developing the industry as a whole. The company even runs a hidden camera prevention education program, openly acknowledging and confronting a problem that was once endemic in the industry.
Yanolja now operates a variety of franchise motels, on top of their H Avenue hotels, with transparency literally at the heart of operations: no more shady parking in front, hidden reception, dodgy decor, or low-quality amenities.
The South Korean motel (or hotel, if you will) universe is fascinating to say the least. It’s just a pity that so many of the weird and wonderful jacuzzi-themed rooms are not readily available to the millions of foreign tourists that visit South Korea each year. But that might all change soon.
Yanolja has already launched a Chinese version of its website, and recently inked an agreement with Japanese vacation rental service provider Rakuten Lifull Stay to provide accomodation information in Japanese.
On plans to expand into the English speaking world? “You bet,” the spokesperson said.
Cover image: The lines between what is a motel and hotel are getting blurred. This room, located at the H Avenue Hotel (Konkuk branch), is tastefully decorated. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé).