The South Korean government’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD deployment decision has resulted in strained relations between South Korea and China. Youke (遊客/유커), or Chinese tourists traveling in large groups, are now rarely seen in Korea since the THAAD deployment decision. Youkes were hardly seen in Korea even during the Spring Festival Holiday, which is one of China’s biggest holidays and usually one of the busiest times for the Korean tourism industry. But a new type of Chinese tourist has emerged, filling up the voids left by the Youkes’ absence. The word Sanke (散客/싼커) refers to Chinese tourists who travel freely and individually. In the past, most Chinese tourists traveled in groups. They would go sightseeing in groups, go shopping in groups, and lodge in groups. They were the big spenders in the tourism industry. But with accumulated traveling experiences, Chinese tourists have also begun to prefer traveling individually, which is a growing global trend as well. And now the number of Sankes traveling to Korea is increasing rapidly following the Chinese government’s ban on Korean entertainment, which was put in place in retaliation of the THAAD deployment. Professor Lee Hoon (이훈) of Hanyang University’s Division of Tourism tells us more.

For the past ten years, Korea’s tourism industry grew by more than 10% on year. But unfortunately, the figure is expected to drop to around 4% this year. It appears that the THAAD deployment issue had an influence on the figure. The Chinese government said it would reduce the number of group tourists by about 20%, and it also refused permits to charter flights required for group tour packages. However, it seems that some Chinese tourists are opting to travel individually instead of as groups.

The political standoff between South Korea and China regarding the THAAD deployment issue has had negative impacts on the Korean tourism industry. While 935,000 Chinese tourists visited Korea in July 2016, the number started to drop after the THAAD deployment decision, and was reduced to 548,000 in December. On the other hand, the number of individual Chinese tourists to Korea has been on the rise. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, about 65% of Chinese tourists who visited Korea during the Spring Festival holiday were Sankes, or individual tourists. The number of searches for Korea by individual Chinese travelers on a travel price comparison website also increased by 152% last year compared to the year before. Sankes tend to be young people, and they are mostly women. Just like the Youkes, Sankes also come to Korea because of their interests in the Korean Wave or Hallyu, and mostly enjoy shopping during their stay here. But there is something that clearly sets them apart from the group travelers.

Group tourists tend to travel mostly in Seoul and Jeju, where large tourist sites and large duty free shops are located. Sankes on the other hand, tend to seek out places that are lesser known, even if they just stay in Seoul. They also travel outside of Seoul. They find their way to the Hanok village in Jeonju, or seek out good places to eat in Busan. Some also tour the city using the local city buses. The new trend is to travel like the locals.

While Youkes mostly visit places like Myeongdong, the palaces or duty free shops with the help of tour guides, the young Sankes look for information on Korean tourist sites with their smartphones, find and reserve accommodation online, and explore the nooks and crannies of the city by searching for good eats and learning how to use the public transportation. They also shop freely in areas like Hongdae, Dongdaemun or Gangnam. Such changes in traveling patterns of the Chinese tourists are significant for Korea.

Sankes travel and shop wisely. They search for lots of information, so they already know where to find good deals. They also search for the good restaurants, and figure out the most practical and affordable ways to travel. But because such travelers tend to stay longer, on the whole, they could spend more money. However, what’s more important is to view tourism in terms of cultural exchange, rather than just as an industry. Such traveling trends could encourage the travelers to feel more positively about Korea by helping them to understand the country and its people. Such positive images in turn could also influence other industries, and even extend to products of small and medium enterprises.

Individual Chinese tourists wish to shop, eat good food and rest, while being part of the everyday lives of Korean people. The Korean people they meet in this way – such as those who help them find directions, restaurant waiters who help look after their children, cultural commentators who work with pride, and drivers who make way for pedestrians – all improve their image of Korea in general in their minds. And such positive images of Korea lead them to seek out Korea in other aspects of life as well. The increase of Sankes could start a butterfly effect. Changes in Chinese tourists, who make up the greatest portion of all foreign tourists to Korea, call for changes in Korea.

Sankes travel on their own, without tour guides. So the most important things are tourist information and directions. It must be made possible to find good information online with ease. That’s also true for off-line. Signs in the streets should include more languages. Secondly, many tourists use public transportation to reach tourist destinations, so transportation connecting systems are needed. It’s important to make it possible for tourists to make reservations in their own countries. Individual travelers usually travel with a theme, or seek out things that they like. So information, products and contents that fit such individualized travels is what we must establish from now on.

Korea’s tourism industry has been changing constantly and growing steadily. Once again, it’s time for the industry to improve the quality of tourism and strengthen its competitiveness.