ZAGREB - Koreans finding love and adventure travelling through Croatia in reality TV shows have put the Balkan nation on the map, making it a popular tourist destination for the Asian market.
It all started back in 2012 with the filming of the South Korean show "Romantic", featuring Koreans in their 20s and 30s visiting Croatia's highlights, from the capital Zagreb to the stunning Plitvice lakes national park and onto UNESCO World Heritage site Dubrovnik on the Adriatic coast.
It became a perfect TV advertisement to visit Croatia.
"Eventually the romantic search of a group of young Koreans for love in several Croatian destinations became a great commercial for our tourism," the head of the national tourist board Ratomir Ivicic told AFP.
South Korean TV then produced another travel-reality show called "Noonas Over Flowers" - noonas meaning older sisters - that had several well-known Korean actresses backpacking their way through Croatia.
"It had a huge impact on the popularity of Croatia and improving the knowledge of our country," said Ivicic of the shows that aired in 2013-14.
Last year more than 252,000 South Koreans visited Croatia, around five times more than in 2012.
"'Noonas Over Flowers' firmly put Croatia on the map for South Korean travellers," said Cho Il-Sang, spokesman for the country's top travel agency Hana Tour.
The whole eastern Europe region had been off bounds for most South Korean travellers due to a lack direct flights and short holidays.
"But the TV show changed all that.... Croatia is emerging as one of the most promising travel destinations for South Koreans who visit Europe," Cho added.
Tourism accounts for about 15 per cent of Croatia's gross domestic product (GDP), around seven billion euros (S$10.86 billion) annually. For the first nine months of 2014, official figures show tourism brought in 6.7 billion euros or 2.5 per cent more than the same period a year earlier.
In 2014 Croatia welcomed more than 12 million visitors, triple the number of its 4.2 million inhabitants. Although tourists come mainly from Europe, Croatia has turned its attention also to Asian markets.
Late last year Tourism Minister Dario Lorenzin visited China, Japan and South Korea to promote the industry.
Most Koreans stay for 12 days visiting also neighbouring countries - Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic or Slovenia.
Park do-Hyeong heard about Croatia for the first time when he watched "Romantic" and became interested in the far-away country.
"People are kind, one really feels safe and it is not expensive," said the 29-year-old on a recent visit to Zagreb.
'Swamped with emails'
Korean tourists have also spurred some new services in Croatia and more business ties between Zagreb and Seoul.
In mid-2014 Kim Seoung-Hoon opened a hostel for Koreans in the Croatian capital, the first one in the Balkans region.
In the entrance to his Love Croatia hostel in downtown Zagreb there's a giant map on the wall with pinned destinations - all places featured in the reality shows. Guests in the 27-room facility are Korean only.
"This is a family-style hostel where people feel close, comfortable, and last but not least, can eat a Korean meal," the 30-year-old owner from Seoul told AFP.
The idea to start the business came when he watched the popular Korean TV shows.
"I realised it was a really beautiful country," Kim told AFP. He also has ambitions to expand his Korean-only hostels to Split and Dubrovnik, where he opened a Korean restaurant last year.
Other businesses saw the opportunities stemming from product placement in television shows.
Croatia's Zagrebacka Pivovara brewery, which has about 45 per cent of the market, signed a deal in October with South Korea's CKB to export a popular beer sipped by the stars of "Noonas Over Flowers".
"We were swamped with emails from South Koreans interested in the Ozujsko beer," export manager Marko Turicic told AFP.
So why the fascination with this particular Balkan country?
Croatia was chosen for the TV shows because it was a destination not widely known in Korea and a place with "beautiful landscapes and cultural heritage", according to producer Na Young-suk - the perfect backdrop for his "Noonas Over Flowers" actresses.