Drop in Chinese travelers to Jeju hinders local tourism

By Chen Qingqing in Jeju Source:Global Times Published: 2017/6/19 17:03:39

Popular holiday destination impacted by China-S.Korea tension over THAAD deployment

Fewer tourists walk outside a shopping center in Jeju Thursday.Photo: Chen Qingqing/GT

After the South Korean authorities last July announced to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the tension between China and South Korea has been escalating. This has posed a direct impact on the local tourism industry on Jeju Island, a favorite travel spot located below the southern end of South Korea's mainland. In recent months, the number of recorded Chinese tourists traveling to Jeju has declined by over 50 percent. A Global Times reporter recently traveled to the island to see what kind of impact the drop in Chinese tourists has had on the local tourism industry.

A 40-year-old saleswoman, surnamed Meng, working at a Lotte duty free shop located in Jeju, South Korea, started chatting with her colleagues after noticing fewer customers passing by on a regular Thursday morning.

Since March's deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), a US missile defense system, which triggered strong opposition from China, the subtropical island is no longer favored by Chinese tourists, according to latest data provided by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO).

Only four or five Chinese visitors come shopping here every day now, the saleswoman noted. "Last year, hundreds of Chinese tourists per day kept us very busy," she said. 

Lotte Duty Free, where people can find a wide range of products including cosmetics, bags, and snacks, is located in the southern part of the island at the Jungmun Tourist Complex. In the previous few years, the complex attracted a large number of Chinese tourists. Sites such as Jusanggeolli Cliff and Teddy Bear Museum in particular were the most visited places.

About 15.8 million tourists visited Jeju in 2016, around 12 million of whom were South Korean tourists, Yang Pil-soo, director of the overseas marketing department of Jeju Tourism Organization, told the Global Times on Thursday.

"The number of tourists from China accounted for 84 percent of the numbers of foreign tourists last year," he said.

The number of Chinese tourists to Jeju grew by approximately 36.8 percent year-on-year in 2016 to 3.1 million, according to data the KTO sent to the Global Times on Wednesday.

Official data from China National Tourism Administration (CNTA) for last year's Chinese visits to Jeju is not available to the public.

The rapid growth was mainly due to the boom in cruise trips, which had almost doubled in recent years, Yang noted.

However, the local tourism industry has been suffering from a decline in Chinese tourists since February, the KTO's data showed. The number of Chinese tourists dropped 56.2 percent in March, then 88.1 percent in April, both on a year-on-year basis.

"Everyone here knows about the THAAD issue, we all know less and less Chinese tourists want to come here," a Chinese woman from Lianyungang, East China's Jiangsu Province, told the Global Times on Thursday night. The woman, who is working at a restaurant in Seogwipo, located a few miles away from the Jungmun Tourist Complex, wished to remain anonymous due to her working illegally.

THAAD aftermath

After the controversial missile defense system arrived in South Korea at the beginning of March, major Chinese travel agencies, including Ctrip, Tuniu and CAISSA Tourism Group, have all withdrawn their tourism services to South Korea, a move seemingly representing a protest of the deployment of the military facility.

"We have not resumed our tourism service to Jeju yet," a PR representative from CAISSA told the Global Times on Friday.

Before the deployment of THAAD on March 7, the CNTA had already warned Chinese citizens on March 3 to seriously and fully study South Korea's entry policy before traveling following an incident in February, when several Chinese tourists were locked in a dark, tiny room and denied entry into Jeju, according to the Beijing News.

Yeon-dong, located in central Jeju, and an area well known for good restaurants and various shops, has recently seen few Chinese tourists wandering around; a sign which read "Chinese No.1 favorite game" was placed in front of a shop full of doll claw crane machines, but no one was playing in it.

However, in The Shilla Duty Free store, situated a few blocks away from the doll crane store, dozens of Chinese tourists, carrying large-sized handbags, thoroughly browsed through various cosmetic product and snack stands, communicating with customers or friends on the phone before making any decisions in the process. Some of them were daigou, or purchasing agents, who buy a large quantity of products at one single time for customers back in the Chinese mainland. 

"It's nothing compared with what we went through last year," a saleswoman, who holds Chinese nationality, told the Global Times on Thursday. "Last year, some brands saw their revenues grow three times higher than this year. If you walked into [the store] last June, I wouldn't have even had time to chat with you like this," she said.

The shrinking tourism industry is weighing on other business sectors, such as retail and restaurant, which will further affect South Korea's economic growth, Xu Xiaolei, manager of marketing at China's CYTS Tours Holding Co, told the Global Times on Friday.

South Korea's yearly loss in the tourism sector amounts to 7.1 trillion won ($6.3 billion), assuming that, as a prediction, the change in travel leads to a year-on-year decline of 40 percent in the number of Chinese tourists visiting South Korea between April and December 2017, local business news portal, korea.co.kr, reported on May 4, citing a report by the Hyundai Research Institute.

Limited impact?

Although the representative from CYTS Tours noted that the impact of THAAD is tangible for the whole supply chain of tourism, local people in Jeju, on the other hand, hold different views.

Tourists from other countries, like Japan and Malaysia, come to visit the island now, which has made the impact of the decreasing number of Chinese tourists less significant, Roger S.Yoon, the owner of GS25, a local convenience store situated a 10-minute drive from Jungmun Beach, told the Global Times on Friday. "S.Korea has had some political problems, […] but now a new president has been elected," he said, noting that the situation will improve in the long run and that the country's whole economy will not be affected by some ups and downs in certain industries. 

Jeju's free visa policy granted to Chinese tourists, who, before March, had been flocking to the island for several years, invited both advantages and challenges, noted Yang, an official from the Jeju tourism authority.

"The boom of Chinese tourists to the island was challenging for the tourism services here [anyway], for example, the lack of information in Chinese, or some Chinese throwing away garbage without respecting local regulations, which annoyed local residents," he said.

"Some residents here are not always hospitable toward Chinese tourists," he added.

However, the way Chinese tourists travel in Jeju has barely changed. "They [still] stay in the same hotels, go to the same restaurants and go shopping in the same areas, so the decline in Chinese tourism has only affected some businesses, which is estimated to account for 30 percent of the overall industry," he said.

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