Korea tourism industry strives to bounce back from MERS slump

By Julie Kim Jackson
  • Published : Jul 7, 2015 - 18:05
  • Updated : Jul 8, 2015 - 09:57

Despite July customarily being one of Seoul’s busiest holiday months, on a bright sunny Monday afternoon the city’s largest palace and tourist hot spot, Gyeongbukgung Palace, was virtually devoid of international tourists.

Myeong-dong -- Seoul’s shopping mecca that is typically teeming with tourists -- and the duty-free shops in Lotte Department Store’s main branch are experiencing rare quiet months in the height of the summer season.

Following the start of the peninsula’s Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak in May, with the country eventually becoming the second-most infected nation in the world after Saudi Arabia, the Korea Association of Travel Agents reported a monumental plummet in Korea travel packages -- more than an 80 percent drop -- amid international concerns of the virus. Nations such as Hong Kong and Macau went as far as issuing warnings against travel to South Korea.

Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul is virtually crowd-free on a Monday afternoon with the Cultural Heritage Administration making admission for all of the city’s four palaces as well as the Jongmyo Royal Shrine and Royal Tombs free for the entire month of July in light of the Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak. (Julie Jackson / The Korea Herald)

The reported fiscal losses due to the slump in the number of package tour reservations is estimated to total more than 100 billion won ($90 million) in sales.

According to the Ministry of Strategy and Finance, Korea’s department store sales decreased by about 16.5 percent compared to the same time last year, with retail shops recording a 3.4 percent fall in profits.

However, with the MERS scare beginning to fade as new cases of the fatal virus peter out, people are now beginning to ditch their protective face masks and return to busy shopping areas.

In a desperate effort to help the tourism industry recover from the impact of the MERS crisis, many local government agencies have begun to launch new initiatives to help lure hesitant tourists, from providing MERS insurance plans to overseas tourists to offering cheaper and more flexible visa requirements.

A rare empty view inside the Lotte Department Store’s main branch Duty Free shop in Jung-ju, which is typically crawling with tourists during the peak summer months. (Julie Jackson / The Korea Herald)

According to the Korea Tourism Organization, more than 135,000 foreigners -- mostly Chinese citizens -- canceled their trips to Korea last month, resulting in a daily average drop in foreign tourists of 21 percent.

“We are waiving visa fees for tour groups from China until Sept. 30,” said Vice Justice Minister Kim Ju-hyun in a statement, adding that the same benefits would apply to travelers from Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia.

“These measures will make it easier for visitors to travel to Korea, which will lower the country’s concerns regarding the flagging tourism industry,” Kim said.

“We not only expect this to revitalize the tourism industry, but the economy as a whole.”

The Cultural Heritage Administration has also waived admission fees for all of Seoul’s four palaces, as well as the Jongmyo Royal Shrine and Royal Tombs, for the entire month of July.

“As a gift to the public in light of the recent MERS issues, the palaces and royal tombs will be open to the public free of charge for the month of July,” the Cultural Heritage Administration wrote on the main entrance to Gyeongbukgung Palace.

Despite the MERS scare that led to thousands of tourists canceling or postponing their travel to Korea, there were some unfazed by the outbreak.

“I called my brother who is living in Korea and asked him if it was safe and he said that I had absolutely nothing to worry about,” said 22-year-old Vanessa Robinson from the U.S., who is visiting the country for two weeks.

“Before I saw pictures in the paper with all of these Korean people wearing masks, but when I got here I noticed that there were a lot less people wearing masks than I expected,” said Robinson. “So to me it wasn’t that big of a deal. I didn’t even bother getting a mask.”

“I did hear about the MERS scare here before coming to Korea, but it wasn’t something that I was worried about at all,” said 16-year-old traveler Madason Barney. “(It’s) definitely not something I would cancel my trip over.”

By Julie Jackson (