Backpackers gather in the kitchen of Space Torra, a guesthouse located in Yeonnam-dong, western Seoul. Hongik University has surfaced as the most sought-after destination for backpackers since the area was linked to the Airport Express. Guesthouses have sprung up to meet surging demand.
The hip neighborhood of Hongik University - often called Hongdae - in western Seoul is sleepy early in the morning. The stores are closed, leaving only street cleaners and a couple of pigeons out and about. Travelers carrying bulky backpacks, however, are a new addition to the neighborhood which is famous for clubs, indie music and stylish cafes.
In recent years, the influx of travelers has led locals to open cozy guesthouses that offer accommodation at reasonable prices.
According to the Seoul Metropolitan Government, Mapo District now boasts the most guesthouses in the city. There are 54 registered guesthouses in Mapo, far higher than Jung District's 18 and Jongno District's 10.
"There are more than 100 guesthouses in this area if we include unauthorized ones", a Mapo District Office official said.
Unlike Jongno and Jung districts, where there are many tourist attractions, Mapo has few traditional tourist spots. Its convenient link to Incheon International Airport though has played a large role in attracting tourists to the area.
"There were not that many guesthouses when I opened mine a year and a half ago", said Kim Jong-jun, the owner of JJ Guest House in Donggyo-dong. "But the number of guesthouses went up when Hongik University Station was added to the Airport Express".
Kim renovated his house of 30 years into accommodation for travelers.
Kimchee Hongdae Guesthouse is one of the longest-running guesthouses in the area. It has attracted visitors with inexpensive accommodation and a neighborly vibe, in addition to its airport accessibility.
A bed in a dormitory starts from 20,000 won ($19) per night, including a simple breakfast. Shared kitchen and living spaces also enable tourists to mingle with other travelers.
"The guesthouse is very close to the Hongdae nightlife area as well as the subway station that runs a direct airport express train to Incheon Airport", David Y, a Singaporean traveler who stayed at Kimchee Hongdae Guesthouse earlier this month, wrote on Agoda, an online accommodation booking Web site.
Thanks to fair prices and their unique environment, these guesthouses are also catching on among young Koreans who need a place to hit the sack whenever they visit Seoul.
"There are not that many options in Seoul when it comes to accommodation. You had to choose between a five-star hotel and a seedy motel before the guesthouses got started", said Kim Bo-young, a teacher living in Gangneung, Gangwon. She often visits Seoul to take part in teaching forums.
"After I started using guesthouses, I feel much safer, and it also brings back memories of backpacking", she added.
Kim Kyeong-mi, 32, an owner of Space Torra, another guesthouse in Yeonnam-dong, said the lack of accommodation options in Seoul made her open a guesthouse about a year ago.
"I took note of surging demand among foreign artists who wished to stay at fun places. But there were none, so I made up my mind to open this place", Kim explained.
Kim uses a part of the guesthouse as her design studio.
According to Kim, diverse groups of travelers visit guesthouses for different reasons.
"People who are in their early 20s often stay at guesthouses to participate in fan meets and similar entertainment events, but this guesthouse charges a bit more than others so most of our guests are in their mid 20s and 30s and are more serious about travel".
With more competition springing up in the area, the guesthouses have tried to differentiate themselves from others by charging less or providing small-scale tours.
"I often take my guests to nearby saunas and restaurants", said Kim from JJ Guest House. Some also provide bicycles free of charge so that guests can tour around the Hongdae area.
But tourists should be careful when choosing where to stay as competition grows fiercer, owners said.
Some inns and goshiwon, or establishments that offer tiny one-room apartments, now call themselves guesthouses to lure unsuspecting travelers.
By Kang Na-hyun, Sung So-young