Tourism industry asks where the Chinese are on Lunar New Year

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Tourism industry asks where the Chinese are on Lunar New Year

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Left: Baojian Street in Yeon-dong, northern Jeju, is empty on Monday afternoon, although it used to be crowded with Chinese tourists. Right: the Hutique cosmetics mall in Incheon on the same day sees hardly any customers. “Our revenue has dropped so much because there are fewer Chinese tourists coming,” complained the manager of the mall. [CHOI CHOONG-IL, CHOI MO-RAN]

Baojian Street in Yeon-dong, northern Jeju, used to be jammed with Chinese tourists shopping and eating. But on Monday afternoon, only a few people were walking the street. Not one group tour could be spotted.

In the second half of 2016, locals were complaining that they couldn’t tell whether Yeon-dong was in Korea or China. The merchants weren’t complaining, of course. They were making money hand over fist thanks to the Chinese influx.

Those shops’ revenues have been cut in half this year. Clothing chains that were popular because they use Hallyu (the Korean wave of pop culture) celebrities as brand models closed down. Cafes have shut their doors and some shop owners have sent their employees home because they can’t afford to pay their salaries.

Last year, the shops and tour agencies had to hire additional workers for the Lunar New Year holidays. This year, they don’t know if they can make ends meet. The Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Tourism Association estimates the number of Chinese tourists during this year’s Lunar New Year holidays to be around 42,880, 16.5 percent less than the number in 2016, which was 51,385.

The decrease is far more for the non-holiday periods.

“The economy is failing to recover amidst all kinds of problems including the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile shield and politics in and outside of Korea,” said Shin Ae-bok, president of the Baojian Street Commercial Cooperative. “Shop owners have given up because they can’t sell enough to even pay the rent.”

Major Korean tourist destinations are hoping for a little relief during the upcoming Lunar New Year holiday, which is the biggest annual holiday for Chinese. But ever since the government decided to deploy the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) missile system, the number of group tours to Jeju, Busan and Incheon has seen a drastic decrease, although those who visit Seoul usually do so in small numbers and have not decreased as much.

The Chinese government is said to have ordered the number of its tourists visiting Korea be cut by 20 percent since August to retaliate for Korea’s decision on Thaad, which was made last summer. It has prohibited chartered flights to Korea. Beijing cannot directly stop individual tourists from visiting Korea, but it can limit group tourists by putting pressure on tour agencies and companies planning trips for their employees.

Hutique, a cosmetics mall in central Incheon, was full of Chinese tourists just two months ago. On Monday, the only Chinese people in the mall were employees of shops. “Chinese tourists don’t come anymore,” said Ju Xianmei, a Chinese manager of a shop. “Other shops are struggling too.”

Hutique was started in December 2012 by the Incheon City government in order to attract more Chinese visitors. Some 16 brands have retail space in the mall. Around 200 tourists came to shop every day before the Thaad deployment was made final, often en route to Incheon airport for the flights home. Whereas more than 60 percent of all customers were Chinese tourists before last year, that percentage dropped to lower than 40 as of January.

The number of regular flights departing from China to Jeju has fallen by 10 percent. Cheongju and Yangyang airports, which used to service chartered planes to and from China during the first two months of every year - Lunar New Year Time - are pretty empty this year.

“We’re going to end up closing down,” said an official from a tour agency in North Chungcheong.

The number of Chinese tourists who landed at Cheongju airport was 100,751 between October and December in 2015. That number dropped by 10 percent in 2016 to 90,723. The number of all tourists coming to into Korea through Cheongju saw an increase from 385,012 in 2015 to 467,913 last year, but the number of Chinese tourists went down. Routes from Cheongju to Pudong, Dalian and Harbin have been stopped since November last year.

Tourist attractions in South Jeolla, such as Yeosu and Mokpo, are almost deserted.

The Busan Tourism Organization expects about 20,000 fewer tourists for the Lunar New Year holiday season compared to last year. The Busan Port had 261 port calls of Chinese ships in December 2016, which will fall to 229 this month. Considering that some 2,500 Chinese tourists come on each call, Busan will be seeing 80,000 fewer tourists this year.

“[The Chinese company] explained that it was just because of a change in schedule, but we assume the reason is mostly because of the Thaad deployment,” said an official at the BPA.

“Jeju was hit hard by the decision to deploy Thaad last year,” said Kim Doo-heung, chairman of the international travel team at Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Tourism Association. “The tourism industry is too concentrated on chartered flights going to and from China, and it needs to reach out to business from Japan and Southeast Asia.”

BY SHIN JIN-HO, CHOI CHOONG-IL AND KIM JUNG-SEOK [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]

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