The Korea Herald


Thai travel to S. Korea plummets

Some blame entry refusals on K-ETA for hindering Thais' visit to Korea

By Choi Jeong-yoon

Published : June 17, 2024 - 18:33

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Despite overall growth in the number of foreigners visiting South Korea this year, the number from Thailand fell significantly, largely in relation to the country's electronic travel authorization system, K-ETA.

South Korea saw some 119,000 Thai visitors from January to April 2024, down 21.1 percent from the same period last year, data from the Korea Tourism Organization showed Monday, as the country struggled to balance attracting tourists with keeping a check on its biggest source of illegal immigration.

This is in stark contrast to almost the 87 percent surge in overall foreign arrivals during the same period.

Chinese visitors increased by 470.1 percent within the same four months, followed by 85.7 percent from Japan and 77.9 percent from Taiwan. Other Southeast Asian countries recorded double-digit increases with the Philippines seeing a 75.7 percent increase, Indonesia 50.8 percent, Malaysia 35.1 percent, Vietnam 29.4 percent and Singapore 10.6 percent.

The tourism industry attributes the decline in Thai travelers to a spate of entry refusals, making them turn to countries with easier and simplified entry procedures such as Japan and China.

Some observers argue the K-ETA immigration system undermines the government's drive to attract 20 million foreign tourists.

K-ETA, an electronic travel authorization system, requires travelers from visa-free countries to obtain authorization before they enter Korea. It was fully introduced in September 2021 to enhance and streamline checks on foreign travelers while countering illegal residency.

By nationality, Thais are the biggest contributors to illegal immigration in Korea.

The Justice Ministry has said it will toughen immigration control as the number of Thai nationals illegally in Korea has tripled in the past 8 years, and now make up 78 percent of all Thais here.

Most of them overstay tourist visas. Korea Immigration Service data shows there were about 152,000 Thais in Korea on the main 90-day tourist visa as of April 30, even though only 100,000 had entered the country on one since Jan 1.

However, an increasing number of tourists are being denied K-ETA applications without being given specific reasons. Complaints have mounted in Thailand, with negative sentiment growing as people share their experiences on social media of being denied.

Cases include a family who had to cancel their trip to Korea because the father was denied entry, or factory workers scrapping a business trip because some of the employees were not allowed in.

As a result, neighboring countries such as Japan and China, which compete with South Korea for tourism, are reaping the benefits.

"Because of K-ETA, people from Thailand, Malaysia, and other countries are turning to Japan and China," said an official from a travel agency specializing in inbound travel to Southeast Asia. "There are voices in the travel industry that we are losing out to Japan once and China again."

Japan implemented visa-free entry for Thailand after the COVID-19 pandemic, and China began reciprocal visa exemptions with Thailand in March this year.

With such side-effects of thorough immigration policies, tourism industries call for improvements in the system, such as excluding countries with visa exemptions from K-ETA requirements, and piloting the system in countries where it is difficult to make it visa-free immediately.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has asked the Ministry of Justice to temporarily exempt Thailand from K-ETA, at least until the end of this year, as the ministry has set a target of attracting 20 million foreign tourists this year.

Thailand is not among the 22 countries that were exempted from K-ETA until the end of this year, which included Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The exemption was later extended to more countries, but Thailand was still excluded.

"South Korea is becoming less favorable to Thais as tourist spots," said an official from the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism to local media, adding that "while it is understandable to consider illegal immigrants, (the ministry) hope they will give Thailand a temporary exemption for this year at least."