Chinese tourists appear to be giving South Korea the cold shoulder despite efforts to win them back with the upcoming Winter Olympics.
Once a favourite holiday destination for mainland Chinese, they started taking their tourist dollars elsewhere when Beijing banned the sale of package tours to South Korea in March.
That was after relations between the two countries turned sour when Seoul decided to deploy a US anti-missile system – Terminal High Altitude Area Defence – to counter North Korean nuclear threats, which Beijing in turn saw as a threat to its security.
Some package tours have since resumed, and there are no restrictions on individual travellers from mainland China going to South Korea.
Tensions began to ease after Korean President Moon Jae-in visited China in December, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang remarking during their meeting that the warmth of “springtime” had returned to bilateral relations.
Seoul had high hopes that the Winter Olympics could revive interest from China – especially since it overlaps with the Lunar New Year holiday – but the lucrative “springtime” for the tourist industry has yet to materialise.
The Winter Olympics organising committee said it expected some 200,000 Chinese to visit its east coast city Pyeongchang when it hosted the Games, which will be held from February 9 to 25.
But as of January 19 – three weeks before the Games – only 69.7 per cent of 1.1 million tickets had been sold, both to local and international spectators, according to the organising committee.
The committee would not provide a breakdown of how many of those tickets had been purchased by Chinese, but its tourism bureau said it had not seen any recovery in numbers since the travel ban on group tours was partially lifted.
“We are not seeing much growth in enthusiasm since the lifting [of the travel ban],” said a staff member at the Korea Tourism Organisation office in Beijing.
China allowed travel agents in Beijing and Shandong to resume sales of group tours in late November after the two countries vowed to “get relations back on track” in October.
During the stand-off over THAAD, Beijing also retaliated against South Korean companies in China, including carrying out fire inspections that led to the shutdown of hypermarkets run by Lotte Group, the conglomerate that provided the site for the anti-missile shield, and South Korean entertainment content was blocked.
The travel ban dealt a heavy blow to the tourism sector. Latest figures from the tourism bureau show that the total number of Chinese visitors halved to 4.1 million last year from 2016, when more than 50 per cent of South Korea’s 17 million incoming tourists were Chinese citizens.
But compared with the drop in tourists from China between March and October – when there was an average monthly decline of 60 per cent from 2016 – numbers improved in December, when they were down 37.9 per cent from a year earlier.
Chinese still make up the largest percentage of South Korea’s visitors, but the industry was expected to lose some US$10.89 billion in revenue from Chinese tourists last year – based on per capita spending of US$1,956 in 2016 – according to a report from the Hyundai Research Institute in September.
The Winter Olympics presented an opportunity for Seoul to revive interest from China, and it has offered visa-free stays of 15 days during the Games, lucky draws, and sent a top-level tourism chief to China in September to promote the event.
Actor and K-pop star Jang Keun-suk, an ambassador for the Games, has also been promoting the Winter Paralympics in March to his Chinese and Japanese fans.
But the campaign does not appear to be working.
“We haven’t been able to promote tourism in the past year ... it’s unrealistic to expect enthusiasm from Chinese tourists to recover immediately after the lifting [of the ban] – even with the Winter Olympics. We’re not expecting much,” the tourism bureau employee in Beijing said.
And some Chinese travel agencies have not resumed sales of group tours since November. Beijing-based Haitao Travel arranged the first, high-profile, tour to Seoul after the ban was lifted, but it has not sold any other travel services to South Korea since. For South Korea, only individual visa applications and travel packages are available on its website.
A travel agent surnamed Xiao who works at a China Travel Service branch in Yantai, Shandong province said interest from Chinese to join a Winter Olympics tour was “so-so”.
“There is not enough demand so we haven’t organised many tours, just a few,” Xiao said. “We’re still providing the service to arrange individual visits, but no others,” he said.
According to a January report from Ctrip – China’s largest online booking website with 300 million registered users – not even “a single group” of Chinese had organised to go to South Korea during the New Year holiday from late December to early January.