2. November 2005

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It seems that Prague is locked in a love affair with the people of South Korea. And, as in any good relationship, each side is doing its part: CzechTourism recently opened a branch in Seoul, the capital of South Korea, and just ordered 10,000 brochures to be printed in Korean. South Koreans, in return, appear to be coming here in droves. That country's national carrier, Korean Air, says it is operating at 100 percent capacity on flights to Prague's Ruzyne Airport.

What's stoking this passion is actually a love story of another sort, this one involving a police detective and a president's daughter. They are the principal characters of a new South Korean soap opera shot in Prague in August that has been airing since last month. The show, Lovers in Prague, is at least in part fueling Korean interest in the Golden City, say those in the tourist trade. Since it began airing, the series has achieved record viewership levels. So far 20 episodes have been filmed and are scheduled to run until January. Because of the show's popularity, the producers are considering extending it.

"Of course I watch the show," says Kim Ju-young with emphasis, as though she were answering a very silly question. Kim is a guide from South Korea who has been giving tours in Prague for three years now. She works for Euroscope, a tour company that specializes in tours to Eastern Europe. "I have to know what's going on in the story. People want details about specific locations they have seen on TV," she says.

Lovers in Prague is a complicated story, complete with intricate love plots and many broken hearts. For the uninitiated, here's the lowdown: Jae-hee, played by popular South Korean actress Jeon Do-yeon, is a diplomat and the daughter of the South Korean president, working in Prague as a cultural attaché at the South Korean Embassy. She falls in love with a poor, orphaned detective, played by Korean heartthrob Kim Min-jun, who has come to Prague to look for a lost sweetheart. The city, of course, is also a star of the show. Most of the external scenes were shot against the backdrop of the city's historic center. This means guides giving tours in Korean now have to study up not just on Prague's history and architecture, but on the latest plot developments of the soap opera. Visitors are keen to see the setting of their favorite show with their own eyes, but this mostly applies to female visitors, Kim says.

The show's popularity has a lot to do with the big-name actors who star in it, says Ivana Axmanová, the owner of Axman Production, a Czech company, which helped organize the show's shooting in Prague. She recalls how the production teams had to keep screaming South Korean girls who were visiting Prague from mobbing the male lead, Kim Min-jun. "He's a national darling," she says. "We really had to look out for him."

Czech tourist authorities say they have reason to expect that the show will fuel a boom in South Koreans visiting Prague: They've compared notes with their counterparts in Paris, where the same production company filmed a similar series, Lovers in Paris, last year. "After they filmed the show in Paris, there was a definite increase in [the number of South Koreans] visiting the city," says Jan Mlcák, CzechTourism's manager of foreign promotion. "We can expect something similar to happen here."

Song Han-hee, who is in charge of cultural affairs at the South Korean Embassy, isn't so sure, though. He says he hasn't noticed any sudden increase in South Korean visitors contacting the embassy recently. "Maybe there are more South Koreans coming here because Prague is being promoted in Korea more," muses Song. "There are many South Korean companies coming here. And tourists who have discovered Western Europe are traveling farther east now." However, Song says, it might be too early to tell: After all, Lovers in Prague has only been on the air for a month.

This year alone, 30,000 South Koreans have flown from Seoul to Prague on Korean Air, according to David Kostura, the airline's Prague manager. Next year, he says, the company expects that number to increase 30 percent. Still, according to CzechTourism statistics, South Koreans only make up 0.6 percent of tourists traveling to the Czech Republic. As of yet, Kim, the guide, hasn't done any tours with an itinerary geared specifically toward Lovers audiences, but says it might be a nice idea. According to Kim, about one-tenth of the tourists she comes in contact with watch the show regularly, and most of them have at least heard about it. The key when guiding is to strike a balance, she says. "Korean tourists don't like to see too many sites," she says. "And they also don't want to hear only about the show." And as for the show itself? Is it any good? "It's pretty interesting, actually," says Kim.

Axmanová, the Czech producer, only saw the first three episodes, but concurs. "I was surprised. I didn't expect such high quality from a [soap opera]," she says. "It would be nice if they decided to film additional episodes here." Will Lovers in Prague return to Prague for another run? Will the show make any real impact on the Czech tourist trade? And what happens if the viewer ratings drop? Stay tuned to find out.