Big news, apparently, is that Chinese tourism in South Korea has finally returned to positive growth after a 12-month streak of travel ban-induced suffering in the Korean tourism market. According to South Korea’s Ministry of Justice, arrivals in March reached 428,000—the first time Chinese arrivals crossed the 400,000-barrier since February 2017.

While it’s easy to focus on the percentage growth (16.5 percent over February, 13 percent year-over-year), the feat is actually less impressive than it seems, and should not be understood as a thawing of the now one-year-old ban on Chinese group travel to South Korea. At best, the growing number of Chinese arrivals South Korea received last month could be seen as evidence for a relatively strong growth of Chinese independent travel to South Korea.

Anything other than growth would have been a huge disappointment

The reason is simple: March 2018 is the first month that is compared to a post-travel ban month in year-over-year terms, hence it’s showing positive growth. Prior months have all been compared to pre-travel ban months when Chinese tourism to South Korea was still booming. In other words, anything other than at least moderately positive YoY growth last month would have been an enormous disappointment.

It is also unclear if South Korea’s Ministry of Justice’s figures are calculated differently from those of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), which normally is the department to report South Korean tourism statistics. KTO has yet to release its arrival figures for March. In comparison, KTO reported 360,782 Chinese arrivals in March 2017 and 601,671 in the same period 2016.

Even though March is far from a return to pre-travel ban levels, it does give South Korean tourism stakeholders reason for optimism.

Despite indications that a lifting of the travel ban was imminent, Chinese travel to South Korea is still limited to independent travelers, including business travelers. In other words, if nothing changes, all the growth in the months to come will be from Chinese independent travelers—a market segment that is more profitable and less sensitive to diplomatic disputes.

South Korea’s travel ban has undoubtedly been bad news for its tourism sector, but stakeholders can take some solace in that it is most likely accelerating the shift toward Chinese independent travel to the country. With no other option, travelers who may have been on the fence about traveling independently before are most certainly doing so now.

Duty-free retailers are reporting significant per capita sales growth

The growing number of more profitable Chinese independent travelers has been felt by South Korean travel retail firms as well. Shilla Duty Free, one of the country’s main players in duty-free shopping, recorded a 50 percent increase in per capita spending among Chinese customers. While total sales to Chinese travelers may be down, the bigger pockets of China’s independent travelers are surely softening the blow of the travel ban.

In the end, the growth of Chinese visits to South Korea may not be as good news as it may seem, but it’s also the best news South Korea can hope for until China lifts its long-running travel ban.

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