Saturday, May 18, 2024

Chinese tourists opt for visa-free destinations, weak yen as Korea’s appeal wanes

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Chinese tourists who disembarked from Dream, a cruise ship that began its journey from Tenjin, China, prepare for tour after arriving at Jeju Port, Jeju Island, April 30. Yonhap

By Luna Sun

During China’s Golden Week holiday, Korea is expected to see a decline in Chinese tourist numbers compared to pre-pandemic levels, travel agents said, as Chinese holidaymakers are increasingly favoring visa-free destinations and neighboring Japan, enticed by a weakened yen.

The shift in tourist preferences presents challenges for Korea’s tourism sector as it grapples with the enduring impact of the pandemic, particularly given the significant spending power of Chinese visitors.

A number of Chinese visa agents told The Korea Times that the number of Chinese people applying for Korean visas ahead of the five-day Labor Day holiday, which started on Wednesday, has plummeted compared to levels in 2019 before the pandemic hit in 2020 when China effectively closed its borders to international travel.

Wang Xin, a travel agent with Beijing Tianping International Travel, who specializes in visa services, said the number of people seeking Korean travel visa services has dropped by at least a third compared to levels seen in 2019.

“This year, many Chinese went to Japan instead, thanks to the low exchange rate,” Wang said, adding that people seeking Japanese visas with him before the holidays are at least 20 percent higher than levels seen in 2019.

Other Chinese travel agents also expressed similar sentiments, saying that Korea’s allure has declined among Chinese tourists, with some saying the number is only a fraction of levels seen before the pandemic.

As the Japanese yen reached a three-decade low against the U.S. dollar, Chinese tourists flocked to Japan, spending generously and propelling it to the status of the most sought-after destination during the Golden Week holiday, as reported by Chinese online travel agencies.

“If many travelers choose Korea primarily for shopping, and with Japan offering more favorable exchange rates, it’s logical that this portion of travelers would shift towards Japan. One country’s loss is another country’s gain,” said Zhou Mingqi, founder of tourism consultancy Jingjian Consulting based in China.

Chinese people are also showing a preference for the easier option of traveling to countries that do not require a travel visa, such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Georgia, and Egypt, among others, as reported by online travel platforms in China.

“Chinese travelers now have more options for their outbound trips. In situations where Korea’s relationship with China is not friendly, Chinese tourists can choose to visit other countries,” said Zhang Huizhi, a professor of Northeast Asian studies at Jilin University in China’s northeastern Jilin Province.

“Additionally, many countries now offer visa-free entry for Chinese citizens, making travel more convenient. Korea, on the other hand, still requires visa applications and other procedures, lacking competitiveness in terms of convenience.”

Tourism in Korea, on the other hand, is also trying to get back on its feet after three years of the coronavirus pandemic that ended almost all international travel.

According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the number of international tourist arrivals recovered to 63 percent of pre-pandemic levels at around 11 million in 2023, compared to 17.5 million international inbound visitors in 2019.

Approximately 2.1 million inbound visitors came to Korea from China, which only removed its severe international travel restrictions in December 2022. That was about 33 percent of its 2019 levels.

In 2019, more than 400,000 travelers from China visited Korea each month, with a peak of 578, 112 Chinese visitors in August, according to the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO).

However, in March, the latest data available, 391,347 Chinese visitors traveled to Korea, significantly less than pre-pandemic levels.

In 2019, more than one in three foreign visitors to Korea were from China, according to the KTO, while the ratio dropped to one in five from 2023 to March 2024.

In China, the five-day Labor Day holiday serves as a crucial barometer for consumption and tourism. Major airports across the country anticipate notable surges in both domestic and international travel during this period.

According to data from Tongcheng Travel, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Tokyo, Phuket, Singapore, Osaka, Seoul, Dubai, Ho Chi Minh City and Chiang Mai are the most popular outbound travel destinations for the May Day holiday among Chinese tourists.

Luna Sun is an economy reporter with the South China Morning Post. She is currently based in Seoul, reporting for both The Korea Times and the South China Morning Post via an exchange program.

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