Visa-fee exemptions force consulate layoffs

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Visa-fee exemptions force consulate layoffs

The government has decided that it will not renew the contracts of 120 local employees at Korean consulates abroad, a decision that follows a yearlong extension of visa fee exemption for Chinese tourists.

The workers will be required to leave their offices by the end of this month.

Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it had recently notified 93 employees in 10 consulates in China and 27 employees in 11 offices across Southeast Asia of the dismissals via an official letter.

Among the 120 employees working under contract, 66 are Chinese and 27 are Korean.

The ministry said it laid off the 120 employees who worked in visa-processing because it didn’t have the budget to pay them.

Their dismissals came after the Ministry of Justice announced in late December that the $15 per-person visa exemption fee for five countries including China would be extended by a year.

The Foreign Ministry paid the workers with the revenue that came from the fees.

However, the dismissals have since raised concerns among some officials that the layoffs could instead delay the visa process at consulates, resulting in a decrease of Chinese tourists to Korea.

In many consulates, the process of issuing a visa, which ranges from basic communication to screening papers, is handled by local workers.

The Korean consulate in China, for instance, issued 540,000 visas last year, and each employee - most of them Chinese - issued 22,700 visas. Workload per person is therefore expected to dramatically increase following the dismissals.

“The measure to help boost the number of Chinese tourists is instead causing an inconvenience and may actually result in keeping them out,” a government official said.

A source at the Foreign Ministry said the decision by the Ministry of Justice to extend the visa fee exemption was made during a ministerial meeting on the economy, which the minister of foreign affairs did not attend.

The source added that the visa fee waiver was enacted immediately after the decision, with limited time to discuss alternative measures.

Tourist groups from China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and the Philippines have been exempt from paying visa fees since July 6, 2015, after the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome in late May dealt a hard blow to Korea’s tourism industry. In response, the Justice Ministry’s initial plan to waive visa fees for three months was instead extended twice, ending in December.

BY YEH YOUNG-JUNE [kim.sohee0905@joongang.co.kr]

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