South Korea to issue e-visas to attract South-east Asian visitors after Thaad fallout

Last year, 8.05 million of 17 million foreigners who visited South Korea were Chinese. PHOTO: REUTERS
Last year, 8.05 million of 17 million foreigners who visited South Korea were Chinese. PHOTO: REUTERS

(THE KOREA HERALD/ANN) - The South Korean government on Wednesday (March 22) announced that it will start issuing electronic visas to South-east Asian tourists in May, as part of its plan to aid the local tourism industry which has been hit by tension between Seoul and Beijing.

In opposition of last year’s joint decision by the South Korea-US alliance to station the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system here, China has been curbing Chinese tours to South Korea.

This includes the reported order by Beijing to ban its tourism agencies from selling South Korean-related programmes.

To counter fallout from the diplomatic spat, the government plans to attract visitors from countries other than China through promotion, boost tourism targeting locals and provide financial support for the tourism industry.

“We will tend to the needs of the local tourism industry, which is suffering from Thaad-related measures by China, and bring changes to the industry’s overdependence on China,” said Finance Minister Yoo Il Ho in a ministerial-level meeting held at the Seoul Government Complex.

According to the Korea Tourism Organisation, 8.05 million of 17 million foreigners who visited the country were Chinese last year.

The KTO said it has seen a considerable surge in visitors from other regions such as South-east Asia, but tourists from those countries only amounted to a little over 200,000 last year.

The government had initially planned to start issuing electronic visas for tourists from South-east Asian countries in the second half of the year, however, it decided to move up the date in the wake of souring relations with China. 

The government also plans to provide a five-day visa-free stay for transferring South-east Asian tourist groups headed to Jeju Island via the Incheon or Gimhae airports, which is expected to provide them with the chance to visit Incheon, Seoul and other neighbouring cities. 

The government also plans to provide an emergency loan of 125 billion won (S$160 million) for companies related to tourism on a 1.5 per cent interest rate, along with a surety bond of up to 100 billion won. 

According to Minister Yoo, a total of 375 billion won will be allocated in support of local tourism companies. 

Local companies have sought counter-measures for the Thaad fallout as well. 

“Although China is virtually irreplaceable, we’re sure that there is potential to bring in more tourists (from other countries) through more aggressive marketing. We’ve been mulling such measures since the Thaad situation last year,” said an official in the tourism industry.

South Korean industries have been hit hard by China’s reaction toward the Thaad deployment here, ranging from tourism and entertainment to across the business sectors.

A report by the state-run Korea Development Bank showed that the South Korean economy may end up losing up to US$20 billion (S$28 billion) in trade with China this year if the dispute between the two countries continues to escalate.