By Youkyung Lee
AP Technology Writer
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The seaside South Korean city of Sokcho is enjoying a surge of visitors who are wandering the streets at all hours as they look at their smartphones. Why? It appears to be the only place in the country where “Pokemon Go’’ players can chase the mobile game’s virtual monsters.
Local restaurants, hotels and businesses are trying to capitalize on the sudden craze by luring tourists with photos of Pikachu and other monsters in their backyard and promising free gifts to the Pokemon “trainers.’’ The mayor pledged to increase free Wi-Fi hotspots and battery-charging stations, and travel agencies have launched Pokemon-themed tour packages to Sokcho.
Hotels in the east coast city near the North Korean border reportedly saw a surge in reservations.
The mobile game has become a blockbuster hit in the U.S. within less than a week of its launch, but it has not been officially launched in South Korea.
Even if there is an official launch, South Korean users might never fully experience “Pokemon Go.’’
Niantic Inc., a San Francisco spinoff of Google parent Alphabet Inc. overlays cute Nintendo characters onto the physical world based on Google Maps. South Korea’s government restricts Google Maps service for security reasons. Gamers have to find spots in the real world to capture and train Psyduck, Meowth and other virtual monsters.
The monsters’ appearance in Sokcho was attributed to map glitches. Niantic divides the world into six groups in its map and by the way Niantic organizes the region, Sokcho and its neighboring area bordering North Korea were classified as Northern Hemisphere.
“Maybe it’s a hole,’’ said Leonardo YongUk Kim, a Seoul-based developer at Realm. “Maybe they just left it thinking that no one would play (the game) in North Korea but somehow Sokcho was included there accidentally.’’
Neither Google nor Niantic immediately responded to emails seeking comment July 14.
Whatever the reason, South Korean “Pokemon Go’’ players have been going to great lengths to take advantage.
It was after midnight when college student Han Kyeol and three friends drove out of Seoul, and 4 a.m. when they arrived at a Sokcho beach.
“As soon as we got out of the car, four of us turned on our smartphones and began playing ‘Pokemon Go’,’’ the 24-year-old said by phone from Seoul. “It was very dark but what was amazing was that there were a lot of men roaming around the beaches with smartphones in their hands at 4 a.m.’’
Han hadn’t visited Sokcho in more than a decade, and hadn’t considered a return trip before “Pokemon Go’’ came around.
He enjoyed his overnight trip so much that he plans to return with his girlfriend. “We went to a 24-hour raw fish place, saw the sun rise and stopped by the main tourist attractions,’’ he said.
Lee Jung-hwan, a 26-year-old video producer, has been traveling to Sokcho and other towns in Gangwon province to find and capture monsters since July 13. When he finds a Pokestop, a key location where trainers can find items such as eggs that can hatch into a full monster, he shares the location on the Facebook group for “Pokemon Go’’ players in South Korea.
“I met people who took a day off to come to Sokcho, people who worked in the morning and left their job in the afternoon and people who took a vacation,’’ he said by phone from Sokcho.
The city of 80,000 is a popular summer destination for mountain hikers and beachgoers. Local businesses are keen on adding “Pokemon Go’’ players who call the place “Pallet Town,’’ the hometown of Pokemon’s main protagonist.
The city had four times more hotel-room bookings last week than it did the previous week, the Yonhap news agency reported, citing Interpark Tour, a hotel booking website.
On Auction, the South Korean unit of eBay, tour agencies began selling round-trip bus tours to Sokcho, calling the destination Pallet Town. A local restaurant hung a banner outside welcoming the trainers to a glass of cold water and free smartphone charging. Ramada Hotel in Sokcho promised three free hotel stay packages to those who capture three monsters in Sokcho.
Even in Sokcho, the experience of South Korean “Pokemon Go’’ would-be masters was limited. They could not see the maps on their phone’s screen and had to rely on intuition or the physical signs to find monsters because of the local restrictions on Google Maps. Most people, however, seemed too carried away by the animated characters to be bothered by the lack of roads or street signs on their phone.
The city, on the other hand, was hesitant to fully embrace the game, given the central government’s restrictions on Google Maps.
“For the city, it is not easy to promote what the government restricts,’’ said Lee Se-moon, an official at Sokcho city’s tourism department. “But it is a great help for the city’s tourism because media continues to report about Sokcho and game manias are promoting Sokcho.’’
South Korea restricts the use of mapping data by foreign companies that do not operate its servers in the domestic market, citing concerns over disclosing military locations amid tensions with North Korea. It is not clear how the “Pokemon Go’’ phenomenon would play out ahead of a government decision expected next month on whether to allow Google to use South Korean mapping data.
The South Korean land ministry’s official Twitter account was met by backlashes from users after saying that restrictions on Google Maps service has nothing to do with “Pokemon Go,’’ apparently unaware that local users cannot access complete mapping data on the game and that they were enjoying the game despite the limitation.
Some express regrets over what the country is missing due to tensions with North Korea.
“We can’t play the game because we are a divided country, but this is what the global trend is,’’ said Lee, the “Pokemon Go’’ trainer in Sokcho. “I wish people could play the game here so it could stimulate the regional economy. I got to go to new places and found a beautiful cliff as I was looking for the spots.’’