August 9, 2017 10:00 am JST

Pyeongchang Olympics ready to go -- anyone actually coming?

Games can be 'started anytime' but South Korean concerns lie elsewhere

YUKI SAKURADA, Nikkei staff writer

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- With the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang just six months away, the final touches are being put to the venues scattered around South Korea's Gangwon Province.

Huge amounts of work -- not to mention money -- have gone into welcoming the world for the four-yearly sports extravaganza, and everything appears to be under control. The venues are all but ready and the locals cannot wait to throw open their doors.

But with barely a fifth of tickets sold, what the organizers have to worry about now is whether anyone will actually show up.

Two hours east of Seoul by highway bus rides lie the clusters of shiny new Olympic venues in Pyeongchang County in Gangwon. The mountain resort is a hugely popular winter sports destination and a retreat from the stifling urban heat during the summer months. 

Beside a great swathe of vacant land at the end of the main street in the county's Hoenggye area stands the 35,000-seat pentagonal Olympic Stadium, where on a July day construction workers were busy fitting out the interior of the venue for the opening ceremony.

According to the operator overseeing construction, 87% of the work was completed as of the end of last month and the stadium is slated to be finished by the end of September. More than 95% of the construction of new and existing facilities has been completed. "We can start the Olympics any time," according to the organizing committee.

A high-speed rail link, scheduled to start operating in December, will connect Seoul's Incheon International Airport and Pyeongchang in around 90 minutes. 

"Seeing the town changing every day, I get excited and feel the Olympics is really approaching," said a 26-year-old who works at a diner in Hoenggye.

Large hotels are also popping up in surrounding areas. A total of about 42,000 rooms will be available during the games, mainly in Pyeongchang and the nearby coastal city of Gangneung, home to the figure skating and other ice sports.

A Gangneung branch of Chaesundang, a popular chain of hot-pot restaurants, was renovated last year to add table-and-chair fixtures to the traditional Korean areas where diners sit on the floor. "We really want to welcome guests from overseas, and want them to like our country," said a 50-year-old shop manager.

Piles of worries

But despite all the hard work put into the preparations, a mere 228,000 tickets had been sold as of early August -- just 20% of the target.

"I've never tried any winter sports. I'm not so interested in the Winter Olympics," said a high school student in Seoul. Most people seem to have other things on their minds.

The country is going through a period of particular uncertainty. President Moon Jae-in took office in May after his predecessor Park Geun-hye was impeached and the ever-present threat to the north grows increasingly ominous. "The Olympics isn't really highlighted," said a 48-year old from Gangneung.

"We aim to lift the public mood in the run-up to the games and make the Pyeongchan Olympics successful," Nancy Park, a spokeswoman for the organizer, said. 

The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics will be held from Feb.9 through Feb.25, 2018. This will be the first time in 30 years that the games are welcomed back to South Korea, with the capital having hosted the 1988 Summer Games.

Visitors can be sure they will receive the warmest of welcomes, but if ticket sales are anything to go by, the venues might have a somewhat chillier feel. 

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