Soohorang and Bandabi, the mascots of the 2018 Olympic and Paralympic games in South Korea. Photo: Shutterstock

The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea were certainly dramatic, especially because of the diplomatic headway through the games on the Korean Peninsula. However, from a financial perspective, the games likely didn’t meet the expectations of the South Korean hosts. In particular, Chinese attendance was much lower than was initially hoped. Originally, the South Korean government expected some 200,000 Chinese tourists to attend the game, but one estimate puts the actual attendance of Chinese visitors at only 20,000.

The South Korean government expected 200,000 Chinese tourists to attend the games, instead one estimate puts this figure at only 20,000

It’s important to note that even if the expected number of Chinese tourists had come, the games were still not guaranteed to be profitable. For most of the history of the games in the 20th century, the games often resulted in a net loss for hosts. The Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games were the first Olympic Games since 1948 to turn a profit. The period in between was marked by successive host governments shouldering heavy losses.

The 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics netted record profits, but winter games tend to have lower profits. There are, of course, a lot of financial considerations to contend with besides attendance, including cost of infrastructure, value of broadcast agreements, and operating costs. The games were initially set a budget of $7 billion, but some are estimating that the total cost of the games for the organizers will be $13 billion.

The games may result in a net loss of $10 billion

Ticket sales across the board were substantially lower than expected, with only 60 percent sold in the lead up to the games. One estimate puts the total revenue at $2.5 billion against the $13 billion cost. The $10 billion or so losses can’t all be pinned on low attendance by Chinese fans.

Still, low attendance by Chinese fans represents a substantial loss of potential revenue. Chinese independent travel to South Korea is still unhampered by any regulations and Chinese passport holders were offered visa-free access to South Korea for the games.

Such a large shortfall in Chinese attendees represents a substantial loss in potential revenue

Nonetheless, packaged tours to South Korea are still largely unavailable for purchase in China. The installation of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea last year created a diplomatic crisis between Seoul and Beijing and led Chinese tourism authorities to ban the sale of tour packages to South Korea, something the Chinese government denies.

Relations seemed to have normalized somewhat in the past few months and the ban on sales of some tour packages was lifted. A month later, it seemed that a full ban was once again in full effect.

For Chinese travelers, travel to certain destinations can potentially lead some to believe they are acting “unpatriotic”

It isn’t clear to what extent the tour groups and independent travel respectively accounted for projected Chinese attendance to the games. However, it arguably doesn’t matter. Nationalism has a strong influence on the behavior of Chinese tourists. Even if travel to a specific destination isn’t prohibited, travel to a country seen to have “anti-Chinese” policies or sentiments can have social consequences for Chinese travelers if relations are particularly tense. Many Chinese travelers fear being seen as “unpatriotic” for traveling to certain destinations.

Even if relations between South Korea and China had been normalized prior to the Olympic Games, it’s very likely that Chinese travelers would not have attended in the numbers initially expected because of the social implications of travel to South Korea.