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High-tech Pyeongchang Olympics needed more low-tech support for foreign tourists

by Amy Chavez

Attending the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea this month reminded me of what Japan still needs to do as it gears up to be the host nation of one of the world’s most prominent sports events.

All of the 2018 Winter Olympic snow events were held in Gangwon province’s Pyeongchang County, in South Korea’s countryside, home to just 43,000 residents. (The Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium holds 35,000.) Not many in that area speak English, including the owner of the pension I stayed at. I found that he, as well as most taxi drivers, didn’t even know basic numbers in the language.

Furthermore, few signs had been translated for the benefit of international visitors. Even simple things such as “taxi” were written in hangul, the Korean alphabet. Sometimes, large placards showing train schedules were incomprehensible as they were devised with only Korean spectators in mind.

With an army of over 16,000 “Passion Crew” volunteers, all dressed in the same red-and-gray snowsuits, there was no shortage of people to ask about the basics, but each inquiry required a roundup of the nearest English-speaking volunteer, and after a while I tired of having to ask every time I wanted to do something simple. In most cases — for me and a plethora of other spectators, many of them first-time travelers to Korea — one well-placed English sign would have been enough to avoid this rigmarole.

Restaurants were numerous almost everywhere, but with only Korean writing on the signs, you really had no idea what kind of fare each served. There was the inevitable pungent spicy smell emanating from these local joints and, if you were lucky, there might be a cute cow or pig snout illustration on the sign — the closest thing to English you’d get. I was anxious to try Korean dubu (bean curd) and local fish dishes, but they remained elusive. Most restaurants were hole-in-the-walls with large smudged windows cluttered with decal Hangul characters, making them all look rather generic from the outside.

Japan is far advanced in presenting its restaurants and food in a variety of enticing ways. Plastic food models in windows and English menus make it even easier, so I have confidence no one will go hungry at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. But it’s prudent to remember that language empowers people, and an informed tourist is a happy one. Japan’s recent commitments to translating place names, transportation boards and restaurant menus into English are sure to benefit foreign visitors who attend the Tokyo Games.

On the other hand, there were a couple of apps that could have helped me get around in South Korea. Unfortunately, I saw few foreign spectators using them, probably for the same reason I wasn’t: We didn’t know about them. The more obvious Pyeongchang 2018 official app was great for Olympic events and news, and the Go Pyeongchang transport app was informative for getting around, but the less obvious KakaoTalk — the go-to app Koreans use for instant messaging — can also be used for navigation and taxi- and ride-hailing in English. Genie Talk, the official translation/interpretation app of the Winter Games, was developed specifically for the occasion and enables immediate rendering of Korean into eight foreign languages through speech, text and image translation.

Most Korean cities offer free Wi-Fi and public transportation is also connected, so these apps should have made for a seamless experience. But the poor dissemination of information and the assumption that sports fans would be as tech-savvy as the interfaces provided were perhaps oversights on the part of the event organizers. As unfortunate as it may seem, we are not a completely wired world yet.

A lot of confusion at the Pyeongchang Games could have been thwarted with an old-school welcome desk at Incheon International Airport’s brand new Terminal 2, where arriving passengers could ask questions (such as “Where is the Olympic Village?”) and where spectators could get acquainted with the transport system, venues and events. This would also be an appropriate place for fans to be introduced to available apps, tourist maps, and even to arrange last-minute hotel reservations.

Instead there was nothing at the airport but a small desk staffed by just one person selling event tickets. It was closed for lunch. Days later I found out I could have bought cheaper tickets (half the price) by going directly to the venue.

At the airport’s KTX train station, where one boards the Korean high-speed rail to get to Gangwon, there was a well-staffed (with volunteers) welcome desk for officials and sponsors, but none for the general public.

In the end, however, transportation ended up being the easiest part of the games to navigate. Due to the plethora of volunteers, and Korean destinations replaced with an easier to remember system of letters and number combinations, one could easily catch a free, warm and efficient shuttle bus decked out with love-hotel-style neon lights and chintzy tasseled curtains that took fans to, from and between venues. It was a great relief to no longer need to remember if you were headed to Yongpyong Alpine Center or Jeongseon Alpine Center. Just show me to bus TS1!

The Pyeongchang mascots, Soohorang and Bandabi, proved to be fondly memorable Olympic icons based on popular creatures who play important roles in Korean culture. Soohorang is based on a white tiger that appears in Korean folklore and is considered a protector of the country, while Bandabi, the character chosen for the Paralympics, is an endemic beast of South Korea who represents courage and will. Both were charismatic creatures who helped people bond with them through their ubiquitous presence (especially for photos) and likability. Soohorang even led a dance to the music of “Gangnam Style” at some of the sporting events. Let’s hope Japan’s mascots, who will be officially announced on Wednesday, prove equally effective.

Returning to Japan and being greeted at Narita airport by signs already welcoming travelers to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics reinforced the feeling that Tokyo, perhaps better than any other city in the world, can pull of a seamless and efficient Summer Olympic Games. No one knows exactly what the technology will look like two years from now, but so far Tokyo 2020 promises a 5G wireless network, virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robots, instant translation apps, the use of drones and self-driving taxis, among other things.

Let’s just hope that in their efforts to showcase the future of technology, they don’t forget the basics.

Japan’s plan to showcase its high-tech savvy at Tokyo 2020 must realistically float between the past, present and future so everyone has the ability to enjoy the games no matter how digitally literate they are, or aren’t.

Japan Lite appears in print on the last Monday Community page of the month.