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Korea to allow cruise tourists visa-free stay

The government plans to allow foreigners visiting the country aboard cruises to disembark here without a visa for short stays as part of efforts to attract foreign tourists.

The Justice Ministry on Friday announced its proposal to ease the visa rule for foreigners arriving in Korea on cruise ships.

The ministry also inserted a clause in the revised bill to help long-term foreign residents adapt to life in Korea and settle down here.

The “tour landing permit” system will allow foreign cruise tourists to disembark in Korea and stay for up to three days without a visa, if the shipping company or the ship’s captain applies for and receives the permit beforehand, officials said.

The current rule does not allow foreign cruise line tourists into Korean ports, even if they choose to stay onboard, unless they are given visas.

According to the proposed bill, cruises selected through a presidential decree will allow foreigners to disembark visa-free for up to three days.

The bill is expected to attract Chinese tourists, among others, addressing complaints that many had about the tedious visa application process.

“Our cruise runs from China to Busan, so the majority of our customers are Chinese, but visas for entering Korea causes a lot of woes, as the application is a time-consuming and complicated process,” said Lisa Yun, at Royal Caribbean Cruise.

Royal Caribbean alone ran roughly 55,000 tourists from China to Busan in 2010.

“It will be a huge help for us to expand in the Chinese market,” said Yun, who heads the marketing team in Korea.

According to data from the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, Chinese tourists accounted for more than 20 percent of the total tourism market in 2010, with over 1.8 million people, a near 40 percent increase from the year before. The majority of those chose cruises to visit the country.

Market reports have shown that the international cruise market has grown 10 percent annually from 8.5 million in 1999 to 17.5 million in 2009.

Since 2005, when 10 international cruise liner routes started servicing here, Korea has seen a yearly average increase of 53 percent in the number of cruise ships up until 2010. Between 2009 and 2010, the industry saw an increase of some 126 percent in cruise tourists, from 77,000 to 174,000.

“The ministry has considered the international boom in the cruise tourism market, and has decided to aggressively push for the permit system for disembarking tourists to tap into the market and attract foreigners,” said a ministry official.

The Korea Tourism Organization is also looking to promote Korea, hoping to attract 200 more lines and 300,000 more tourists by 2013.

According to survey results by the KTO in 2010, over 36 percent of cruise line tourists choose lines based on the ship’s port of call.

The bill also includes a new clause to lay a legal foundation for Korea Immigration & Integration Program. The program provides long-term foreign residents with the necessary information and counseling service to ease their integration into society. Under the clause, the Justice Ministry will be able to implement various integration programs for foreigners staying in Korea.

By Robert Lee (