Tourists from China are back, but not like before

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Tourists from China are back, but not like before

Chinese group tours, which helped fuel local retail sector growth in recent years, have yet to make a full comeback despite the easing of restrictions by Beijing, Korean duty-free store operators said on Sunday.

The assessment came as official data from the Bank of Korea showed that 475,000 Chinese nationals visited the country in October, up 37.6 percent from a year earlier.

Local tax-exempted outlet operators like Lotte Duty Free and Shilla Duty Free, as well as the umbrella Korea Duty Free Shops Association (KDFA), said that most Chinese customers were individual travelers and so-called “daigongs,” rather than “youkers,” or group travelers.

Daigongs are small-scale merchants who buy products here on behalf of customers back home.

Chinese authorities clamped down on group tours to Korea in March 2017 after Seoul allowed the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile defense system on its soil, despite objections from Beijing. China has since partially lifted restrictions, but the number of group tours has not returned to past levels.

Lotte said that it had almost no youkers, who enter the country on a group visa, and that most shoppers were individual travelers or small merchants.

It said that before the frictions caused by the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense’s deployment, there were 7,000 to 8,000 youkers daily at its main duty free store in downtown Seoul. This dropped to around 2,000 after the uproar and then to zero.

Shilla said it did receive 820 youkers in October.

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