South Korea has a lot riding on the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics which start on Friday, but for the economy the biggest benefit would be a return of tourists from China, which is the next host of the games.
Tourist numbers crashed last year after South Korea angered China by deploying a US missile defence system. While there had been hope for a detente with China after the two nation’s leaders met in December, the decline in tourist numbers continued into January.
The Korea Tourism Organisation expects the pace of decline to ease in February as the games start.
“We saw tourists from Beijing and Shandong – areas where package tours were resumed albeit with restrictions – booking trips for the Winter Olympics,” said Park Yong-hwan, a deputy director at Korea Tourism Organisation.
The Korean government has sought to lure Chinese tourists by allowing no-visa entry for those who possess games tickets worth 200,000 won (US$183) or more. The Pyeongchang Olympics organising committee does not disclose how many tickets have been allocated to China’s authorised ticket reseller. As of February 5, 77 per cent of the 1.07 million tickets have been sold to spectators at home and abroad, according to the committee.
The collapse in tourism in 2017 dealt a blow to some parts of the economy, widening South Korea’s services deficit and slashing 0.4 percentage point off annual growth, according to the central bank.
The Winter Olympics organising committee said it expected some 200,000 Chinese to visit its east coast city Pyeongchang when it hosted the games, which will be held from February 9 to 25.
China allowed travel agents in Beijing and Shandong to resume sales of group tours in late November after the two countries vowed to get relations back on track in October.
The travel ban dealt a heavy blow to the tourism sector.
Latest figures from the tourism bureau show that the total number of Chinese visitors halved to 4.1 million last year from 2016 when more than 50 per cent of South Korea’s 17 million incoming tourists were Chinese citizens.