Chinese group tourists enter Incheon International Airport on Aug. 24. [Photo by Han Joo-hyung]
On Monday, the South Korean government announced its goal of attracting 2 million Chinese tourists this year in a bid to boost the domestic gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate by 0.16 percentage points. Measures to achieve this goal include the exemption of electronic visa issuance fees for group tourists and simplifying duty-free procedures. While it is understandable that the government wants to leverage the Chinese government’s recent relaxation of regulations on group tourism to Korea to stimulate domestic consumption, there are many concerns given the current domestic tourism industry infrastructure.
Even industry insiders are concerned about a potential sudden surge in visitors this fall during the traditional Korean Chuseok and the Lunar National Day holidays. The three year-long Covid-19 pandemic led to structural changes in the industry, particularly in hotels and travel agencies. A sudden influx in the number of tourists could compromise the quality of services. The hotel industry has particularly witnessed a shift in operations towards other commercial facilities. This means an estimated maximum of 60,000 hotel rooms available in Seoul, of which only about 25,000 rooms are available for foreign tourists after domestic reservations. Considering that an average of around 100,000 Chinese tourists used to visit Korea during the National Foundation Day holidays before the pandemic, Seoul’s current hotel capacity falls far short of accommodating foreign tourists.
Tour guides and charter buses face similar challenges. The number of staff at travel agencies has also decreased by half over the past three years and charter bus drivers have also transitioned to delivery platforms and other transportation-related jobs in high demand, leading to a significant driver shortage. Under these circumstances, it is practically unviable to expect economic growth from consumption by Chinese tourists.
Chinese tourists often share their experiences during their trips to Korea through popular platforms like TikTok and WeChat. Any negative comments about hotels or inexperienced drivers and tour guides could undermine the reputation that Korea has built up through Korean pop culture and music. At its peak in 2016, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Korea hit 8 million. Unless the Korea-China relationship significantly deteriorates, that number is likely to recover to an annual 3 million visitors from 2024 onwards. The government and the industry should focus on restoring tourism infrastructure rather than pursuing short-sighted targets.
By Editorial Team
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