SEOUL — While the air was warm and the sun was out on Friday, the normally busy streets of Myeongdong were much quieter than usual. As one of Seoul’s most popular tourist spots, the district is known for its K-pop-inspired cosmetics and fast fashion, trendy coffee shops and wide array of street foods, as well as for being a shopping mecca for Chinese tourists.
Over the past few years, the South Korean tourism industry has looked chiefly to the Chinese as its main clientele. According to the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Chinese tourists made up over eight million of the 17 million tourists who visited South Korea last year.
But all this stands to change in light of China’s travel ban on South Korea.
According to local press reports, travel agencies and tour operators in China were instructed by the China National Tourism Administration to cancel all package tours and trips to South Korea by March 15.
The Korean media cites that China’s travel ban is the latest in a series of retaliatory moves against South Korea’s decision to deploy its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) antiballistic missile system against possible North Korean threat. China has repeatedly warned its neighboring country to suspend its missile program, citing safety and security concerns.
Since the start of the travel ban on Wednesday, the number of Chinese tourists in South Korea has shrunken seemingly overnight.
“This is the worst week we’ve experienced [so far],” said Kim Ji-hwan, branch manager of Cook & King, a home electronics retailer in Myeongdong. “Our main customers were Chinese, and 90 percent of them are gone now.”
The shop’s Korea-made rice cookers were among the most popular products among Chinese tourists, Kim explained. “We actually had a lot of Chinese [wholesale] customers,” he said. “But now they are worried that if they sell Korean items in China they will be told to stop….Korea’s image is getting worse [in China,] they don’t like Korea anymore.
“I don’t see the government improving this problem because right now [Korean politics] are still very chaotic,” said Kim. “There is no president, so the government has no idea about how to solve this.”
These days, Kim said he only sees Chinese tourists from Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. “We are planning to change the languages on the products and shop windows from simplified Chinese to English, Japanese and other languages, to attract other customers,” he said, adding that the company was also featuring new items store-front, including USB-powered air purifiers and health bracelets to diversify their range of products.
Myeongdong is not the only area affected by the downturn in Chinese tourism, the government has reported that a number of local historic sites have also experienced a drastic decrease in tourism. Seoul’s renowned Joseon-era Gyeongbokgung palace saw a 36 percent drop in visitors from March 3 to 9, compared to the year before. The Jongmyo shrine, a UNESCO heritage site, experienced a 48 percent decrease in tourism over the same period.
Jeju Island’s formerly burgeoning tourism industry has possibly been hit the hardest by the travel ban. According to local media, more than 117,000 Chinese tourists canceled their travel plans to South Korea’s most popular island destination.
According to the Korea Tourism Organization, the nation’s tourism revenue is forecast to lose out on at least 11.1 trillion won, or $9.82 billion at current exchange, if the downturn in Chinese tourism continues.
Local media say the travel ban isn’t the only thing impacting the South Korean economy. In recent weeks, Lotte Group has experienced enormous backlash abroad, with over half of the firm’s signature Lotte Mart hypermarkets shut down in China, after news of the group’s new deal to hand over a Lotte-owned golf course to the Korean government as a site for THAAD deployment. South Korean celebrities, K-pop stars and their ads have reportedly been banned from appearing and being broadcast in China.
With the ban and other measures having come into full effect, South Korean politicians and policy experts have begun to call upon the government to suspend THAAD. On Friday, members of South Korea’s former opposition party, the Democratic Party, said THAAD was no longer worth the trouble.