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Korea's tourism balance hits historic low in July

South Korea saw its greatest deficit ever in tourism balance in July this year, with the imbalance expected to continue amid tensions with China and North Korea, and the upcoming Chuseok holiday luring Koreans to travel abroad.

According to numbers from the Bank of Korea on Tuesday, the travel trade balance hit a $1.79 billion deficit in July this year, representing the lowest point ever. The balance fell by 40.8 percent compared to July last year.

Travelers leaving Korea wait to check-in at Incheon International Airport on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Travelers leaving Korea wait to check-in at Incheon International Airport on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

The fall in income from travel corresponds to a drop in the number of Chinese tourists entering the country. In July last year, Chinese tourists made up more than half of those traveling to Korea. This year, that number fell by 69.3 percent, with just 281,000 Chinese coming to Korea in July.

The difference was caused mainly by a precipitous drop in the number of groups of Chinese tourists coming to Korea following intergovernmental tensions over Korea‘s decision to install the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile system here. 

Chinese tourists, who were known for their high spending on shopping when in Korea, have driven up tourism revenue over the past few years.

Meanwhile, more Koreans are leaving the country for a vacation. In July, 2,389 Koreans left the country, representing a 14.5 percent increase on-year. Tourism spending by Koreans overseas hit the second-highest point ever in July at $2.76 billion.

This imbalance is likely to continue into the autumn months as tensions escalate on the Korean peninsula after North Korea’s latest nuclear test. 

“We have not seen any significant changes in our bookings so far, but we are definitely monitoring the situation closely and do expect a bit of a drop,” said an official with one of Korea‘s main airlines. 

Another significant factor that may contribute to a tourism imbalance in the fall is the upcoming Chuseok holiday. The government officially declared Oct. 2, a so-called sandwich day that was wedged between the weekend and the long national holiday, a temporary holiday. That means that Koreans can take up to 10 days off this Chuseok, and many have opted to go abroad.

According to outbound travel agencies Hana Tour and Interpark Tour, about twice as many people have booked overseas trips during the Chuseok holiday this year compared to the same holiday last year. 

By Won Ho-jung (