Japan is the top destination for South Korean vacationers, but Japanese travelers aren't returning the favor as Seoul continues to press Tokyo on "comfort women" and other wartime issues.
A 2016 survey by the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute shows Japan as the most popular overseas holiday destination, with 15% of the respondents selecting the country. The U.S., China and France followed with 10%, 9% and 8% shares, respectively.
Some 4.66 million South Koreans visited Japan in the first eight months of this year, up by about 42% from a year earlier. The full-year total may reach 7 million, more than double the roughly 2.75 million in 2014. The surge over the past three years has been as fast as the growth of Chinese visitors, who have been swarming the streets and shops in many parts of Japan from Tokyo to Kyoto and rural areas.
Seoul's Incheon International Airport was mobbed with vacationers during the 10-day series of national holidays and weekends through Monday. A stunning 2.06 million passengers flew out of the airport during the holidays, its operator said Monday. Travelers to Japan increased more than 30%, local media reported.
Such ardent passion is not reciprocated, however. Japanese tourists visiting South Korea increased just 4% to some 1.5 million for January through August. The eight-month tally makes the full-year outlook unlikely to reach anywhere near the 3.41 million high recorded for 2012.
South Korea's hotel industry is looking for more business from Japanese customers. "We don't know why Japanese tourists aren't returning," said an executive at a major hotel company.
One reason might be that Japanese do not feel comfortable vacationing in South Korea when the government there is pressing for a renegotiation of the deal on comfort women with Tokyo.
The connection apparently is not well understood in South Korea. The public there tends to separate political feelings and consumption choices, passionately supporting the cause of wartime victims yet eager to eat Japanese food and visit onsen hot springs.