It's the peak season for Korea’s tourism industry. Korea, Japan, and China all celebrate a number of holidays together in early May, and the period has been referred to as “Golden Week,” indicating a boom for the tourism industry. Things are looking different this year though as China placed a ban on Korean tour packages over the deployment of the US THAAD missile system on Korean soil. However, the crisis has prompted Korea’s tourism industry to diversify, which is leading to new opportunities. Here is Professor Lee Ki-jong of Kyunghee University to first tell us how this year’s Golden Week is different from last year.

Japan's "Golden Week" is from April 29th through May 7th, while China's Labor Day holiday is from April 29th through May 1st, so early May is an important time for the tourism industry here. In Korea, the first week of May also includes many public holidays, so many people will be taking additional days off to extend their vacation. However, the number of Chinese tourists has dwindled due to the THAAD situation and there are many concerning issues. Until last year, Korea's tourism industry was thriving but because of the deployment of THAAD, the Chinese government ordered their travel agencies not to sell travel packages to Korea. According to statistics by the Korea Tourism Organization, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Korea in March fell 40% year-on-year, so around 330,000 fewer Chinese tourists visited the nation that month. In my opinion, the THAAD situation is likely to continue until next year.

During China's Labor Day holiday last year, 69,000 Chinese tourists visited Korea. However, with China's economic retaliation against Korea due to THAAD taking effect since March, the number of Chinese tourists has fallen sharply. For one local travel agency, the number of Chinese group tour reservations plummeted from 1,000 last year to 0 this year. Chinese tourists have traditionally taken up the biggest portion of foreign tourists visiting Korea. However, despite the sharply decreasing number of Chinese tourists, the total number of foreign tourists actually increased during the 1st quarter of this year.

A total of 3.71 million foreigners visited Korea during the first quarter of this year, which is a 3 percent increase year-on-year. The number of Chinese tourists fell 9%, but tourists from other countries surged 14 percent. For example, the number of Japanese tourists rose by 21 percent to 610,000, while tourists from Southeast Asia and the Middle East were up 12 percent also to 610,000. An increase in tourists from Japan and Southeast Asia, as well as the growth of budget carriers, are contributing to the trend. Compared to last March, the number of passengers who traveled between Korea and Japan on budget carriers was 1.55 million, a rise of 300,000 year-on-year. A total of 2.34 million tourists traveled from Southeast Asia, an increase of 440,000 year-on-year.

The reason why the number of foreign tourists increased is because of the rise in Japanese and Southeast Asian tourists. Looking at the figures from March, the number of Japanese tourists surged 22 percent year-on-year, while around 75,000 Taiwanese tourists visited Korea. That represented a near 29 percent increase compared to the same time last year, the biggest growth recorded among countries with established tourism routes to Korea. Japanese and Southeast Asian tourists are filling the void that Chinese visitors have left. Why are they now visiting Korea?

Cost was a factor that hurt Korea’s competitiveness in terms of tourism. However, with more budget carriers expanding their services, prices have become more competitive. Also, the Korean government and distribution companies have been trying to avoid the fallout from the THAAD situation, so they have been aggressively marketing in Japan and Southeast Asia. In order to diversify the market, the government will begin issuing electronic visas to group tourists from Southeast Asia in May. The e-visas had only been issued to Chinese group tourists in the past. Also, for tourist groups who have layovers in Jeju, they will be allowed to enter Korea for 15 days without an entry visa. Meanwhile, the Japanese economy has been recovering so more Japanese tourists have been visiting Korea, while Hallyu has had a positive impact in Southeast Asia, causing a steady increase in the number of tourists from the region in recent years.

Currently, Japanese tourists are hesitating about visiting Korea as the Japanese government is citing the dangers of North Korea’s nuclear problem. This has slowed the growth in Japanese tourists to between 2 and 3 percent. However, this is expected to be temporary as the popularity of Korean dramas and the increase in budget flight options is making Korea a more attractive travel destination. Through on-site travel fairs and no-visa entry deals, the Korean government is trying to woo the hearts of foreign travelers. Korea’s tourism and retail industries are also aggressively marketing products such as talk shows featuring Hallyu stars, tour packages including visits to the filming locations of famous dramas, and medical tourism packages using chartered flights. Along with these efforts, new markets are being explored.

There hasn’t been much cultural contact with Middle Eastern countries. However, as of 2015, statistics show that there are 1.8 billion Muslims living in the world. By comparison, the Chinese population is 1.4 billion. Although it would be hard to compare a single country with a religious and cultural population, Muslims have a sense of unity that can be comparable to a country. This year, we are expecting the number of Muslim tourists to break through the 1 million mark for the first time. According to the Korea Tourism Organization, the number of Muslim tourists reached 980,000 in 2016, increasing 33% from the previous year. This is a higher rate of increase than that for the total number of foreign tourists, which was 30%. Just looking at countries in Southeast Asia, there’s Malaysia of course, but Indonesia has a population of 200 million, so it holds huge potential.

The Korea Tourism Organization recently announced the Muslim Friendly Korea project. Its goal is to attract 1.2 million Muslim tourists by creating a Muslim-friendly environment. It also plans to hold a fair introducing restaurants specializing in Halal cuisine. Although it is inevitable that the number of Chinese tourists will be fewer than before this “Golden Week,” the tourism market is becoming more diversified.

I believe the Korean tourism infrastructure should take this crisis and use it as an opportunity to upgrade and improve its infrastructure. To diversify its foreign tourism market, the industry should attempt to create high-quality tour programs that cater to their needs. Also, high added-value content should be continuously developed in the medical and culture tourism industries, while infrastructure for accommodation, food, and traffic should be improved. With an increase in Muslim travelers, Korea needs to increase its range of Halal food. Restaurants should offer Halal cuisine, and the menu should be available not just in English, but also in Arabic. There should be prayer rooms at various tourist spots, as well as in popular locations among foreign tourists such as Itaewon. These would all be considerate measures for tourists coming from Islamic countries.

This Golden Week has become a blessing in disguise for the Korean tourism industry to lower its dependence on China and strengthen its internal stability. If these efforts continue, the nation’s tourism industry will have a brighter future.