SEOUL — The Pyeongchang Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games only begin Friday, but already there has been much talk surrounding South Korea’s first hosting of the Winter Olympic Games. Among the speculation is the swirling rumors related to the upcoming presence and participation of the divided country’s northern communist neighbor.
From the highly anticipated arrival of a large North Korean delegation — including a 229-member cheerleading squad and North Korean pop stars — as well as the participation of its athletes in events like mixed pair figure skating and women’s ice hockey, where North Korean players will play alongside South Korea on a united team, and the highly anticipated performances by its secretive Samjiyon Orchestra, all eyes are now on the high-profile reunion taking place between the long-divided nations.
Ticket sales were initially lower than expected, but circumstances have changed after North Korea’s involvement was revealed last month; many visitors hope to catch a glimpse of the communist nation’s delegation and athletes performing at the opening ceremony and other events.
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In early January, 60 percent of the tickets for the games had been sold but by this week, up to 77 percent of them had been sold, according to the The Pyeongchang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games.
Experts believe the lower number of anticipated visitors at the outset was lower due to factors like the Games taking place in the relatively unknown county of Pyeongchang (pronounced “pyung-chang”), located in South Korea’s eastern Gangwon province, as well as the region’s distance — over an hour away by train from the capital, Seoul.
The official opening ceremony will be held at a 116 billion won, or $109 million at current exchange, outdoor stadium specially built for the event. Local economists, though, wonder if Pyeongchang county can make up for all the costs incurred.
“We are worrying about the economic impact after the Olympics because we built this stadium and the financial burden of this on the local government will be huge,” said Kang Sung-jin, a professor of economic development at Korea University. “The national government cannot support the local government’s spending,” he said, adding that smaller communities often experience such issues when they become host regions for major international events.
The outdoor structure also drew much criticism due to the extreme cold-weather forecasts in the upcoming weeks; the weather is expected to reach a low of -12 degrees Celsius on some evenings.
Given the cold temperatures, long puffer coats, arguably the biggest fashion trend in South Korea this winter, are anticipated to continue to be bestsellers until the end of the season.
The Games’ official retailers The North Face and Lotte Group have each produced their own series of Olympics fashion merchandise, including the aforementioned puffers with Olympics logos and lettering. And while select colors of The North Face’s coats remain in stock, Lotte sold out of all 300,000 pieces of its jackets last year, long before the games.
Lotte’s 60 billion won, or $54.6 million, sponsorship deal with the games resulted in the launch of its “Passion Connected” Olympics clothing line including T-shirts and sweatshirts, as well as plush figurines of the event’s official mascots, Soohorang, a white tiger, and Bandabi, a black Asiatic bear. The retailer also carries The North Face’s collections of fleece zip-up sweaters and long coats.
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“Lotte will operate Olympic stores in department stores, duty-free shops, large marts, convenience stores and other supermarkets, supermarkets near airports, airports and major train stations…at more than 50 outlets nation-wide,” the firm said.
Other major partners for the games include Visa, the official credit card sponsor and the only form of cashless payment that will be accepted on site. Visa recently introduced the sale of prepaid “smart gloves” at vending machines on location which contain special chips that can be used to pay for food, souvenirs and other items at the events.
However, critics worry that enforcing only one type of payment could be constricting for the event’s visitors, including Chinese tourists, many of whom are accustomed to using Alipay, Alibaba’s digital banking component, when traveling in South Korea.
Alibaba, also an official sponsor, will provide technology solutions and cloud-based computing for the event’s organizers; its services will include ticketing, media and video services, as well as creating data centers on site, according to Reuters.
“We want to show visitors how Alibaba is going to leverage technology, especially cloud-based solutions, to make the at-Games experience more enjoyable and efficient for everyone,” Chris Tung, chief marketing officer at Alibaba Group, said in a statement to WWD.
Pyeongchang expects to see at least 370,000 visitors over the 16 day event. And while ticket sales are increasing, South Korea will continue to see less of the once-flourishing numbers of Chinese visitors, many of whom were high-spenders.
The number of Chinese tourists has remained low since last year, when China implemented a travel ban to the nation after South Korea’s deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense antiballistic missile system on several domestic military bases, a decision China strongly opposed.
Pyeongchang will see much less than the initially forecast of 200,000 Chinese visitors to the event, according to the South China Morning Post. The nation is expected to have lost $10.89 billion in revenue due to China’s travel ban over 2017.
But some remain optimistic and believe the ban will soon be lifted. “I think South Korea’s relations with China will improve [soon],” said Kang Sung-jin. “Over time, the number of tourists might increase a little more than last year. It would be helpful for the [local] economy.”