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South Korea suddenly not so attractive to tourists

The MERS outbreak has delivered a devastating blow to South Korean tourist hot spots, such as Seoul’s Myeongdong shopping district.

SEOUL -- South Korea's tourist industry has been devastated by the recent outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS.

     But the mysterious virus is not the only factor behind falling arrival numbers. Seoul needs to come up with a new strategy if it wants to lure back its Chinese and Japanese neighbors.

     One sign of trouble for South Korea's tourist industry is the declining ratio of returning tourists. Many overseas tourists visiting the country have been complaining of a shortage of hotels and underdeveloped transportation networks.

     On July 1, the South Korean government announced a set of measures to stem the decline. It said Chinese tourists holding group tourist visas issued by the Japanese government are allowed to enter South Korea and stay in the country for up to 15 days without a South Korean visa.

     This is a revival of a measure that was suspended in September 2012 because of a surge in visitors who ended up illegally staying long term.

     The allowance is quite useful for Chinese group travelers planning to visit both Japan and South Korea, said Kim Young-june, commissioner of the Korea Immigration Service of the Justice Ministry. Kim was speaking July 1 during a press conference in Seoul.

     In addition, the government said it will waive the $15 tourist visa fee for visitors from China and four Southeast Asian nations -- Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam -- from July 6 through September.

     In another step to boost inbound tourist traffic, the period of validation for one-off visas issued between March 1 and the end of June have been automatically extended from three months to six months.

     These steps were prompted by a rapidly shrinking inflow of tourists. The number of foreign visitors to South Korea in June plunged by half from a year earlier, according to the Justice Ministry.

     The number of Chinese visitors, the largest group of foreign tourists to the country, in June tumbled 54% to about 260,000.

     Since Chinese tourists spend an average of 2.32 million won ($2,070) in South Korea, the drop in the number of visitors translated into a loss of about 700 billion won in June alone, according to the Seoul municipal government.

     The South Korean government is desperate to contain the MERS epidemic and put the inflow of foreign tourists back on an upward trend.

     But an end to the MERS crisis may not ensure a full recovery of South Korea's tourist industry.

     The number of Chinese tourists who want to visit the country again started trending down even before the outbreak.

     According to the Korea Culture and Tourism Institute, a research institute under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the ratio of repeats among Chinese visitors fell to 25.8% in 2013 from 37.4% in 2010.

     The fall is being attributed to discontent among visitors about the country's accommodation and transportation facilities.

     A survey of mainly foreign tourists by the Korea Tourism Organization has found the number of complaints concerning accommodation rose to 118 in 2014 from 95 in 2013. Gripes about airports and airline services increased to 70 from 65, while those of railways and shipping services hit 35, up from 23.

     The pace of the construction of new hotels failed to keep up with the once-rapid growth of foreign tourists, resulting in a shortage of lodging. Guest houses and private homes are now being used to accommodate visitors, but they lack the popularity of hotels.

     Another major problem is insufficient railway services connecting the capital with far-flung destinations. As a result, it is believed 80% of foreign tourists stay in Seoul.

     Another reason smaller cities and towns are finding it difficult to attract foreigners is that a lot of these visitors come to the country mainly for shopping.

     "One big problem with our tourist industry is that we don't have cities like Kyoto or Osaka," a Korean Tourism Organization official said.

     There is a growing chorus of calls in the industry for policy measures to promote cruises, medical tourism and integrated casino resorts.

     But the country's efforts to bring first-timers back by offering more diverse attractions and destinations have barely begun.

     South Korea in 2009 surpassed Japan in arrival numbers. In 2014, it welcomed 14.2 million foreign tourists, 790,000 more than Japan brought in. But Japan overtook South Korea during the first five months of 2015 by luring more Chinese.

     South Korea has been ahead of Japan in pursuing a national strategy to increase foreign tourists. But it is becoming increasingly likely that South Korea in 2015 will fall behind Japan in this metric for the first time in seven years.

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