Tourism spots in Korea feeling a deep downturn

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Tourism spots in Korea feeling a deep downturn

Korea’s international tourism destinations are in panic over the Wuhan coronavirus and its impact on business.

Southern Jeju Island, one of the most popular destinations, is already seeing a sharp decline in tourists.

According to the Jeju Tourism Organization, about 125,241 tourists visited Jeju Island for six days, from Feb. 1 to 6 compared to 238,296 a year earlier, a 47.4 percent decline. The number of foreign tourists went from 24,473 last year to 9,936, a 59.4 percent drop.

“I am being forced out of business,” said a 50-year-old souvenir shop owner on Jeju. “I suffered from a decline in the number of Chinese visitors after the deployment of the U.S.-led Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (Thaad) antimissile system in 2017. The situation is even worse now as Korean tourists aren’t visiting.”

Last week, the Korean government temporarily suspended its visa-free program for foreign travelers to Jeju, and the number of flights between China and Jeju has dramatically decreased.

Some 149 flights were scheduled to be operated from Jan. 30 until March. 28. As of now, about 81 percent, or 121 flights, have been canceled, according to the Jeju Tourism Organization.

The cancellation rate for hotels, rental cars and tour buses is between 80 percent and 90 percent. Many Korean high schools have been canceling school trips to Jeju for health reasons.

The Jeju Special Self-Governing Province estimates that if the situation with the virus shows no improvements until June, the number of tourists will drop by 3.5 million in total, causing losses of 1.5 trillion won ($1.3 billion). That 1.5 trillion won is equivalent to 23 percent of the tourism industry’s revenues over the period.

And yet no one has been infected with the coronavirus on Jeju Island. Local health officials tested 47 people with symptoms of the virus, and all but one were negative. The final person’s results are still being awaited.

The city of Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang, is also struggling.

According to North Gyeongsang, the number of visitors to its major attractions fell 55 percent in January compared to the same period last year. The cancellation rate for hotels has been increasing as well.

“There was no single customer for three hours,” a 66-year-old taxi driver in Gyeongju told the JoongAng Ilbo last Saturday. “I’ve been working for 10 years, but it was never this bad before, even when the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, came to Korea in 2015 and when a 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck off Gyeongju in 2016.”

“My income had been reduced by a third,” another taxi driver said. “We are suffering even though no patient was confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus in Gyeongju. I can’t imagine how much worse it will get in the future. The local government should put more effort into providing protective masks and hand sanitizers to people to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki and North Gyeongsang Gov. Lee Cheol-woo on Saturday visited the city of Gyeongju to encourage workers who have been suffering due to the reduced number of visitors.

“I believe a speedy end to the current situation is the best way to protect the tourism industry from suffering,” Hong said on Saturday. “We will try our best to end the coronavirus outbreak in Korea as soon as possible.”

According to data collected by BC Card, tourism revenues nationwide from Jan. 1 to Feb. 3, had been reduced by 7.3 percent compared to the same period last year.

BY CHEA SARAH, CHOI CHOONG-IL AND OH WON-SEOK [chea.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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