On Thursday last week, a ceremony was held at Incheon International Airport to welcome the 17.25 millionth foreign visitor to South Korea this year.
The number of foreign travelers to the country is expected to reach 17.5 million by the end of the year, surpassing the previous annual record of 17.24 million set in 2016, according to the Korea Tourism Organization.
The figure translates to one foreigner arriving here every 1.8 seconds over the course of a year. Or 118 planes carrying 407 foreigners landing in the country every day for one full year.
KTO officials estimate that the nation will gain annual tourism revenue of 25.1 trillion won ($21.6 billion) this year, with the tourism industry expected to generate production worth 46 trillion won and 460,000 jobs. These estimates make the tourism sector a rare bright spot for the sluggish Korean economy, which has been troubled by falling exports and slumping domestic demand.
A booming tourism industry could help shore up the economy. The sector’s employment inducement coefficient -- which refers to the number of new jobs created by a certain amount of investment -- is more than double that of the manufacturing industry.
Moreover, an advanced tourism industry enhances the quality of life for local people as well. Koreans too can benefit from thriving businesses that specialize in culture, food, health care and beauty.
The record number of foreign tourists this year is particularly meaningful in light of China’s long-standing ban on group tours to Korea and the prolonged diplomatic and trade disputes between Korea and Japan, which have had a negative impact on bilateral human exchanges.
Korea saw the number of inbound travelers plummet to 13.34 million in 2017 before inching back up to 15.35 million in 2018, due mainly to Beijing’s decision to restrict package tours to the country in reprisal for Seoul’s choice to allow the US to deploy an advanced anti-missile system here.
To attract more individual Chinese tourists, the Seoul government has simplified visa issuance regulations for middle-income earners and college students in China.
Thanks to those efforts and Beijing’s somewhat looser restrictions on group tours, the number of Chinese tourists to Korea surged 26.1 percent on-year to 5.51 million in the first 11 months of the year.
The number of tourists from Japan rose 11 percent to 3.01 million over the cited period, though the figure recorded on-year drops of 14.4 percent and 13.8 percent in October and November, respectively.
It is also encouraging that Korea is becoming a destination for a growing number of travelers from Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the US. The 17.25 millionth visitor of 2019, who was greeted by tourism officials at the Incheon airport and handed a gift last week, was from Indonesia.
The number of foreign cruise tourists arriving in Korea also began an upturn this year for the first time in three years, according to recent data from the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries. About 249,000 foreigners visited the country on cruise ships over the January-October period this year, compared with 202,000 tallied for the whole year of 2018.
Data released last month by the World Tourism Organization showed the number of foreign tourists to Korea jumped 16.1 percent on-year in the first nine months of the year, far exceeding the global average growth of 4 percent.
With the significant rise in the number of travelers to the country, Korea’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s tourism competitiveness assessment has climbed from 19th in 2017 to 16th this year.
Emboldened by the record number of inbound tourists, President Moon Jae-in said last week that Korea would open “an era of 20 million foreign tourists in 2020.”
It may be possible for the country to achieve the landmark figure next year, especially if Beijing lifts the ban on package tours on the occasion of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Seoul planned for the first half of the year. Korea may also attract some of the foreigners flocking to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.
The country should continue to step up efforts to attract tourists from diverse parts of the world and lessen its reliance on China. Beijing could toughen restrictions on tours to Korea again if it believes Seoul is harming its security interests.
Korea also has much to do to improve its tourism infrastructure.
In this regard, President Moon should recognize that the biggest obstacle to the further development of the tourism industry is regulatory barriers. For instance, environmental regulations have prevented the construction of cable cars in mountainous areas, which account for two-thirds of the country’s territory.