July 24, 2024
A group of Thai fans of K-pop boy band BTS display their souvenirs at the 2024 FESTA event, where BTS member Jin met with fans, at southeastern Seoul's Jamsil Sports Complex, June 13. Yonhap

A group of Thai fans of K-pop boy band BTS display their souvenirs at the 2024 FESTA event, where BTS member Jin met with fans, at southeastern Seoul’s Jamsil Sports Complex, June 13. Yonhap

Decline in number of Thai tourists reflects strict K-ETA requirements and increased entry refusals

By KTimes

While the number of foreign tourists visiting Korea has increased significantly this year, Thailand, once the leading Southeast Asian country in terms of visitors to Korea, has seen a steep decline, now falling to third place behind Vietnam and the Philippines.

The Korea Tourism Organization said Monday that 119,000 Thai tourists visited Korea from January to April this year, a 21.1 percent decrease compared to the same period last year. In contrast, the overall number of foreign tourists surged by 86.9 percent during this period, according to Yonhap News Agency.

During this time, Chinese tourists increased by 470 percent, Japanese by 86 percent and Taiwanese by 78 percent. Other Southeast Asian countries also saw significant increases, including the Philippines (76 percent), Indonesia (51 percent), Malaysia (35 percent), Vietnam (29 percent) and Singapore (11 percent).

Even compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, the recovery rate of Thai tourists remains low. From January to April this year, Thai tourist numbers were only 59 percent of what they were in the same period in 2019, significantly lagging behind the overall foreign tourist recovery rate of 88 percent.

In 2019, Thailand was the top Southeast Asian country in terms of tourists to Korea with 572,000 visitors, surpassing Vietnam (554,000) and the Philippines (504,000). However, this year, Thailand has fallen to third place with 163,000 visitors, behind Vietnam (163,000) and the Philippines (158,000).

Industry experts attribute the decline in Thai tourists to negative sentiments arising from entry refusals at Korean borders.

Foreign tourists arrive at Incheon International Airport, April 26. / Yonhap

Foreign tourists arrive at Incheon International Airport, April 26. / Yonhap

K-ETA behind decline of Thai tourists

The introduction of the K-ETA (Korea Electronic Travel Authorization) system, which requires travelers from 112 visa-exempt countries to register and obtain entry approval online before departing for Korea, has been a significant factor.

Although K-ETA exemptions were temporarily granted to 22 countries, including Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, Thailand was not included.

The high number of K-ETA rejections and lack of clear explanations for these rejections have fueled dissatisfaction among Thai nationals. Some travelers, even after receiving K-ETA approval, were denied entry upon arrival in Korea, further exacerbating the issue.

These entry refusal stories have become a hot topic on Thai social media, contributing to the decline in tourist numbers. The stricter entry requirements for Thai nationals are partly due to Thailand being Korea’s leading source of illegal immigrants, many of whom have been involved in serious crimes, including drug offenses and sex crimes.

The Ministry of Justice has emphasized that the measures are necessary to prevent illegal immigration and are not discriminatory against Thai nationals.

However, the tourism authorities, aiming to attract 20 million foreign tourists annually, are concerned about the decline in visitors from what was once the top Southeast Asian country for tourism to Korea.

A Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism official said, “The decline in Thai tourists can only be explained by the K-ETA issue. Despite our request for a temporary exemption of K-ETA this year, which is designated as Visit Korea Year, the Ministry of Justice remains firm on its stance.”

South Korea and Thailand have designated 2023-2024 as the “Korea-Thailand Mutual Visit Year” in hopes of strengthening tourism ties between the two nations.

This article is translated by generative AI and edited by The Korea Times.


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