Tourism never dies
The author is a regional affairs senior writer and JoongAng Ilbo Daegu bureau chief.
Gimhae Airport’s international terminal was open but empty when I visited on Dec. 5. As there were no flights operating over the weekend, I could only spot a few agents on duty. Currently, there is only one international flight, to Tsingtao, China, out of Gimhae on a weekly basis. After a flight to Tsingtao was allowed in October, entry is also allowed from this month. In December 2019, 1,270 international flights were operating a week in the airport. The domestic terminal lobby was not crowded either. From Dec. 1 to 6, 843 flights operated, 129 less than the same period in November. The passenger load fell from 83.7 percent to 68.6 percent after the third wave of the coronavirus started spreading.
Daegu Airport is no different. In December 2019, an average of 248 flights operated weekly, and now, only one flight is operating out of Daegu, to Yanji, China. The domestic passenger load fell by about 20 percent from 78.9 percent. Simply speaking, the airline industry is plummeting.
Outbound and inbound traffic is the lowest in history. Outbound passengers were 4.12 million from January to October, 17 percent of the same period last year. And 86 percent of the traffic occurred in January and February, when Covid-19 began. Inbound passengers are no exception. The number was 2.39 million between January and October — 84 percent less than the previous year — as a result of countries closing their borders to stop the Covid-19 spread. While travel restrictions have been somewhat eased, 52 countries and regions still impose an entry ban, and 111 countries are implementing quarantines. In a nutshell, overseas travel is still a pie in the sky.
The situation is more serious in Japan. Outbound passengers have never exceeded 40,000 a month from March to September. The number of inbound passengers is even more insignificant — 1,663 in May, 2,565 in June and barely over 10,000 in September. Last year, Japan had record-breaking 31.9 million inbound passengers, so the number decreased by 99.9 percent from April to June compared to the same period of last year. Economic impact is tremendous. Inbound passengers were one of the pillars of Japanese economy. In 2018, inbound spending in Japan was 4.5 trillion yen ($43.5 billion), more than Japan’s total electronics parts and semiconductor exports. Japan’s domestic travel promotion campaign “Go to Travel” was a measure to make up for loss.
Korea and Japan’s tourism situation is a miniature of the global phenomenon. The UN World Tourism Organization estimates that international tourists fell by 70 percent from January to August compared to the same period of last year. In 2019, the total number of tourists was 1.46 billion. The drop was the biggest in the Asia-Pacific region, at 79 percent. The loss of tourism income was $730 billion, about eight times the tourism reduction at the time of the 2009 global financial crisis. The tourism industry makes up about 10 percent of global GDP.
Experts forecast a grim outlook. Most panelists on the World Trade Organization expect international tourism to rebound in the third quarter of 2021 at the latest, while 20 percent of the panelists said it would only rebound in 2022. Their dominant prediction is that tourism would recover to the pre-Covid-19 level by 2023. Coronavirus practically swallowed up international tourism. But tourism will not fail. The Incheon International Airport’s survey on 1,600 Koreans and foreigners shows that 70 percent of Koreans and 80 percent of foreigners were willing to travel abroad after vaccine development.
The ice age for tourism can be a chance to reorganize related infrastructure. Security and safety are the spirit of the time. Priority is to focus on clearing the fear. As proper partitions have become a competitive culture, tight spaces should be widened from now on. Another obstacle cited by the panelist was communication. If they don’t understand Korean, it was hard to visit new tourist attractions or attractive restaurants or use public transportation. Foreigner-friendly software also needs to be developed.
Indoor connection between airports and subways and bus routes between airports and tourist sites also need to be improved. If Korea offers more attractive tour courses, passengers will use certain airports more than before.
Tourism is a field with growth potential. Korean landscape is beautiful and full of attractions. Inbound passengers can offer a glimmer of hope to regions with decreasing population. It is important to change our mindset and view foreign tourists as our second population and consumer group. As tourism is halted now, it may be the last chance to revise the strategy. As Korea has achieved a success in trade, there’s no reason we can’t do the same for tourism.