May 24, 2024

A version of this article has also been published by The Korea Times in partnership with the South China Morning Post.

During China’s ongoing “golden week” holiday, South Korea is expected to see a decline in Chinese tourists compared with pre-pandemic levels, travel agents said, as holidaymakers are increasingly favouring visa-free destinations and neighbouring Japan, enticed by a weakened yen.

The shift in tourist preferences presents challenges for South 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 said that the number of Chinese people applying for South Korean visas ahead of the five-day Labour Day holiday, which started on Wednesday, plummeted compared with the same period in 2019, before the pandemic hit in 2020 and China effectively closed its borders to international travel.

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

“This year, many Chinese went to Japan instead, thanks to the low exchange rate,” Wang said, adding that the number of clients who came to him for Japanese visas before the holiday was up by at least 20 per cent versus five years ago.

Other Chinese travel agents also expressed similar sentiments, saying that South Korea’s allure had declined among Chinese tourists, with some noting that their numbers were only a fraction of what they used to be.

They are flocking to Japan as the yen has fallen to a three-decade low against the US dollar, spending generously and propelling Japan to the status of most-sought-after destination during the holiday, as reported by Chinese online travel agencies.

Chinese travellers now have more options for their outbound trips

Zhang Huizhi, Jilin University

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

Chinese people are also showing a preference for the easier option of travelling 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 travellers 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.

“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.”

02:27

China expands visa-free travel to 6 new countries

China expands visa-free travel to 6 new countries

Meanwhile, tourism in South Korea is trying to get back on its feet after three pandemic-plagued years halted almost all international travel.

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

Around 2.1 million of last year’s inbound visitors to South Korea came from China, after it removed its stringent international travel restrictions in December 2022. That was about a third of 2019’s total.

Also in 2019, more than 400,000 travellers from China visited South Korea each month, with a peak of 578,112 in August of that year, according to the Korea Tourism Organisation.

In March of this year – the latest data available – 391,347 Chinese visitors travelled to South Korea.

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In 2019, more than one in three foreign visitors to South Korea were from China, according to the tourism organisation, but that ratio dropped to one in five from 2023 to March.

In China, the Labour Day holiday serves as a crucial barometer for consumption and tourism. Major airports across the country were anticipating surges in both domestic and international travel.

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

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