Chinese tourists flock to S Korea despite Thaad spat

Published: 4:00 AM, January 12, 2017

SHANGHAI — Record numbers of Chinese travellers visited South Korea last year, with the pull of food and shopping trumping politics even after Beijing’s warnings that tourism would be hit by fallout from Seoul’s decision to install a United States ballistic missile shield.

There were more than 3.8 million Chinese tourist entries into South Korea in the four months following Seoul’s July decision to host the US’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system, a 27 per cent year-on-year increase. Chinese state media had said visitor numbers would plummet.

Some of the relative rise is explained by a drop in tourist demand caused by an outbreak of the Mers virus in 2015. But the 2016 figures are also a large increase over the same period in 2014, when South Korea welcomed about 2.3 million Chinese tourists, according to official statistics.

The numbers suggest limitations to China’s efforts to mobilise its tens of millions of outbound tourists for policy ends. Analysts said South Korea’s proximity to China and the enduring appeal of its cuisine, pop culture and cosmetics suggested numbers would continue to grow this year.

The Chinese government last year informed South Korean tour agencies of plans to cut tourism from China by 20 per cent and limit shopping days on tours, diplomats briefed on the matter have said. But political tensions were “not really a factor” determining Chinese visitor numbers last year, with the appeal of K-pop and local cosmetics brands playing the main role, said Ms Ruyi Xu, director of China research at Mintel, a consultancy. “I think the data speaks for itself.”

The Global Times, which has close ties to China’s ruling Communist party, reported in August that “South Korea’s tourism industry has to run into a strong headwind as anti-South Korea sentiment grows”, warning that “no other country can fill the vacancy if Chinese visitors go away”.

However, Mr Daniel Meesak of Jing Travel, which monitors Chinese tourists, said that while “Chinese media have been pushing this agenda” that tourist visits would decline, “the numbers simply point in a different direction”. Beijing has denied applications from South Korean airlines to add charter flights between the two countries for January and February — a peak travel season that includes the Chinese New Year holiday. Several of China’s main package-tour companies are state-run, potentially giving officials more sway.

But those companies have become less important as Chinese travellers increasingly book independent travel through websites such as Ctrip, according to Ms Maggie Rauch, an Asian tourism analyst at Phocuswright. Beijing could also move to alter its visa regime, she added, although that “would be a long-term project”.

Meanwhile, the rise has prompted some soul-searching online. Under a thread titled If South Korea has installed Thaad, why have tourist numbers gone up? on question-and-answer site Zhihu, one user joked: “Maybe because they have relative confidence in Thaad’s attack and defence capabilities”. FINANCIAL TIMES