There’s not really any light at the end of the tunnel for South Korea’s travel ban-struck hospitality and retail industries, at least not unless things fundamentally change on the Korean peninsula. This, according to Communist Party of China-owned tabloid the Global Times which went against the widely reported narrative of a rebounding Korean tourism sector in an article on the subject.
According to the Global Times, South Korea is “unlikely” to see a rebound in Chinese tourism until it fundamentally changes its approach to national security. At the crux of the conflict is THAAD, a U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense system deployed in South Korea as tensions on the peninsula were rising. China quickly responded to THAAD with a ban on tour group travel to South Korea in the spring of 2017. Global Times calls for THAAD to be “appropriately handled” if the country wants to see anything reminiscent of the rapid growth of Chinese tourism that South Korea experienced in years past.
Unless South Korea changes is approach to national security, a return to pre-tourism ban Chinese visitor numbers may not happen
Additionally, and most certainly even harder to achieve, the tabloid argues that the situation on the Korean peninsula needs to fundamentally change for South Korea to enjoy a tourism rebound.
Interestingly, the narrative in Global Times’ report goes against that of other Chinese media outlets, including state-owned media. In recent weeks, Chinese media such as Alibaba-owned South China Morning Post and even official news agency Xinhua have reported on Chinese tourists’ alleged return to South Korea.
However, as Jing Travel has previously argued, recent growth primarily comes down to that numbers are now compared to post-travel ban figures from last year. This is further corroborated by Park Yong-hwan, senior deputy director of the China Team at the Korea Tourism Organization, who told the Global Times that growth “this year is expected to be slightly higher than the previous year due to the base effect.”
Other state media’s eagerness to report on Chinese tourism growth in South Korea could have indicated that a softening or lifting of the now over one-year-old tourism ban was imminent, but the Global Times’ rebuttal now puts that into question.
The expected return of Chinese group travelers now appears less-than-imminent
Now, with tensions seemingly easing on the Korean peninsula, South Korean tourism stakeholders are now reportedly promoting peace-themed tours along the DMZ as a sign of the times. However, even a message of peace seems to fail to resonate with Chinese tour operators (or, perhaps more likely, their governing bodies).
“Major travel agencies in China, for example, Ctrip, have no plans to explore business opportunities in ‘peace-themed’ tours,” the Global Times reported.
Of course, it should perhaps be pointed out that Chinese online travel agencies (OTAs) are still barred from selling any South Korea tour packages, so the “no plans” may simply be because they’re indefinitely unable to do so—whether peace-themed or not.
However, as arguments often go in Chinese media, the underlying cause of all this unpleasantness isn’t South Korea, China, or even North Korea—it’s the United States. “The interference of US forces jeopardized Sino-South Korea ties, including business relations,” Liang Qidong, vice president of the Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences told the publication. Liang also argued that it’s THAAD which caused “significant losses” to the South Korean tourism industry.
Of course, fact that a growing number of Chinese free independent travelers (FITs) are visiting South Korea would suggest that it’s less about THAAD repelling Chinese group travelers, and more about China’s tourism ban doing just that.
Either way, it seems unlikely that Chinese tourism to South Korea will recover to pre-ban levels any time soon. That is, unless China repeals its tourism ban.