South Korea continues to be in a rough spot after its decision to deploy the THAAD anti-missile defense system, with Chinese tourist arrivals down 48.3 percent in 2017. Despite assurances that the quasi-travel ban would be lifted, Chinese group travel to South Korea looks all but restricted—a boon for Chinese “daigou” shoppers, but not for many others. The Chinese group tour travel ban looks set to continue through the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics taking place 9 to 25 February, and local authorities are attempting to court Chinese travelers at the last minute—but seemingly with little success.
The most recent development aimed to bolster tourism during the 2018 Winter Olympics is introducing a limited visa waiver program for Chinese and Southeast Asian tourists during the Olympic games. The Olympic visa waiver program would be the first such program South Korea rolls out outside of Jeju Island, one of the most popular destinations in the region among Chinese tourists, and also one of the destinations that have suffered the most from the Chinese travel ban.
The proposed visa waiver program would mean that olympics visitors from China don’t need visas
However, according to reports in South Korean media, South Korean legislators have only come as far as deciding to “consider” the limited visa waiver program. This despite that the fact that the Winter Olympic Games are just about to begin.
According to the proposal, the visa waiver program would allow Chinese and Southeast Asian visitors with Olympic tickets worth at least 200,000 won ($190) to stay in South Korea for up to 15 days without any pre-arranged visa. For travelers from Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, the visa waiver would be limited to group travelers.
Unfortunately, the likely very late introduction of the proposed visa waiver program in combination with China’s prolonged South Korea travel ban makes the potential Chinese tourist windfall severely limited. With group travelers from China out of the question due to the travel ban, that leaves Chinese independent travelers willing to go to South Korea on short notice—and for the Olympics—as the only fraction of the market where the proposed program may have any effect.
IT’s unclear if South Korea can even roll out the proposed program before the olympics begin
The challenge is compounded further by the Lunar New Year which begins in the middle of the Winter Olympics on February 15. While South Korean legislators may argue that the Olympics coinciding with the Lunar New Year is a good thing, it likely will have to opposite effect on the potential visa waiver program. The Lunar New Year holiday is a notoriously high-demand period for travel, and it’s unlikely that many prospective visitors haven’t already made plans for the holiday period.
Tourism stakeholders are also skeptical about the prospects for a rejuvenation of Chinese tourism to South Korea. “We are not seeing much growth in enthusiasm since the lifting [of the travel ban],” a staff member at the Korea Tourism Organization office in Beijing told the South China Morning Post. “We haven’t been able to promote tourism in the past year … it’s unrealistic to expect enthusiasm from Chinese tourists to recover immediately after the lifting [of the ban] – even with the Winter Olympics. We’re not expecting much,” the tourism bureau employee in Beijing said.
For now, it looks like South Korea’s best bet for filling Olympic stadiums is to focus on domestic sports enthusiasts and tourists from countries which haven’t imposed a travel ban on visits to South Korea.