To ease MERS fear, Chinese tastemakers invited

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To ease MERS fear, Chinese tastemakers invited

A coalition of firms including the Korea Tourism Organization, Asiana Airlines and Lotte Duty Free have invited heads of major Chinese tour companies, journalists and power bloggers to Korea in an effort to ease worries about Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in the country and revive interest in Korean tourism.

Two hundred people including 150 CEOs of major tour companies across China, 40 journalists and 10 power bloggers are scheduled to come to Seoul for a three-day tour from July 15 to 18, sponsored by the firms.

Visitors are set to tour the presidential Blue House; Cheonggyecheon, a 10.9 kilometer (6.7 mile) long stream running through central Seoul, Lotte World Mall and other major tourist destinations around Seoul.

The group is also set to participate in various sightseeing and cultural activities including a walk around Myeong-dong, in which Seoul city mayor Park Won-soon is expected to participate.

Korea has seen a sharp decline in the number of foreign tourists visiting the country, which has dealt a heavy blow to local retail, hospitality and tour businesses that have come to rely significantly on Chinese tourists.

Lotte Duty Free, for instance, saw its sales drop 30 percent in June compared with a year earlier as the number of foreign tourists cancelling trips to Korea nears 140,000, a large portion of which are Chinese.

Despite the latest signs that MERS is being contained, the cancellation rate among Chinese tourists has not slowed, industry insiders say.

Major local firms have lately been urging Chinese tour companies and related government officials to reassure China that traveling to Korea is safe, and to develop interesting tour packages that spark interest in Seoul.

The Korean government has also temporarily waived visa fees for tour groups coming from China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia as part of the efforts to help the depressed local economy recover.

“We hope that this event will help publicize that the MERS situation in Korea is being contained,” said Kim Soo-cheon, the CEO of Asiana Airlines, one of the sponsors of the tour program.

Flights to and from China account for nearly 20 percent of Asiana’s passenger revenue, as Korea’s No. 2 air carrier operates flight services to 24 cities in the country. Nearly 30,000 Chinese have cancelled their Asiana Airlines flights since the outbreak of MERS through July 3.

Lotte Duty Free also said the program was expected to bring about positive results, adding it will play an active role in developing Korea tour packages and improvements in the overall quality of Korea tours.

“This [program] will directly show participants that Korea is a safe place [to travel],” said Lee Hog-kyun, the CEO of Lotte Duty Free.

Separately, Lotte is also planning a two-day tour for 40 officials from Beijing and Shanghai tourism companies that have had close working relations with the duty-free chain. About 800,000 Chinese tourists visited Korea last year through these companies, according to Lotte.

The program is expected to be held in the resort island of Jeju.

BY PARK JUNG-YOUN[park.jungyoun@joongang.co.kr]

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