A health worker administers a swab at a temporary Covid-19 novel coronavirus testing centre in Bucheon, south of Seoul, on May 27, 2020. Photo: AFP/Ed Jones

In a worrisome foretaste of what may become the new global norm, South Korea is tightening international travel restrictions even as the Covid-19 crisis eases.

That should send shivers down the spines of global tourism czars – for while Korea is hardly the only nation to impose irksome travel regulations, the country was globally noted for its liberal, “no-lockdown” approach to pandemic control.

As it shifts from crisis control to longer-term measures, Korea, despite being an economy that is 70% dependent upon global trade, is implementing moves that appear designed to suppress incoming and outgoing travel for the foreseeable future.

The latest, which stunned and angered the country’s expatriate community, took effect on June 1 – just ahead of the period when many were considering summer travel plans as the Western world gradually exits lockdown.

However it, and related tactics, may have one upside: They could well boost Korea’s domestic tourism industry and correct a chronic travel deficit in 2020.

Expats infuriated

As of June 1, South Korea demanded that all long-term foreign residents apply for a re-entry permit before traveling overseas, and also obtain a medical certificate and/or Covid-19 test three days before boarding their flight to return to Korea.

News of the regulation, which does not apply to Koreans, prompted an outcry among the foreign business community, and a storm of complaints from expatriate organizations. Foreign chambers of commerce held a meeting with representatives of the Justice Ministry and KOTRA, Korea’s trade promotion agencuy, Asia Times has learned. 

Some accused the Justice Ministry, which introduced the meaures, of racial discrimination, given that the rules apply neither to Koreans, nor to foreign-born ethnic Koreans (who enjoy special visa status).

Not so, insisted the ministry in a written response for foreign reporters.

Koreans are constitutionally guaranteed the right to enter the country, and related immigration law extends to ethnic Koreans. Foreign residents have no such legal rights.

Moreover, the measures were adopted after “pan-governmental discussions,” the ministry said,

But given that every traveler entering Korea has to undergo a Covid-19 test and undergo a two-week quarantine upon arrival, the new regulation appears unnecessary as a safety measure and logically baffling.

“The latest enforcement by the Korean authorities of changed entry procedures caught us all by surprise,” Christoph Heider, the president of the European Chamber of Commerce in Korea. “Nobody really understands the rationale.”

The rationale is, in fact, candidly admitted in the ministry response.

It wrote that the aim of the regulation was to: “To curb non-essential travels by long-term foreign stayers and to protect the health and safety of Korean nationals and foreign residents.”

And it looks likely to remain in situ for a while. “I don’t think they will revoke this in a month or so, I think they will keep it in place up to autumn or winter,” Heider said.

Still, there was a slight shift in the government’s stance following the outcry.

The visa re-entry permit can be applied for online rather than in person; and those traveling for academic, research or business reasons, and who return to Korea within three weeks, can receive an exemption from the requirement for the medical.

“Obviously, it is not desirable, but they at least made a very quick effort to make it a little less obstructive,” Sean Blakeley, chief executive of the British Chamber of Commerce in Korea, told Asia Times.  He added, though, that the regulation for foreign residents “…does discriminate – even if is not intentional.”

According to government figures released by Yonhap News, there were 2, 524, 656 foreign residents in South Korea, a country with 51 million citizens, as of February 2020. Of them  68.6%, or 1,731,803, were long-term residents.

They include well-to-do expatriate executives, migrant workers in industry and agriculture from developing countries, students and foreign spouses.

“There was no need to come up with something additional, especially as there are minimal numbers travelling,” said Heider. “The system that used to be in place was working pretty well,”

Screws tighten

Prior to the June 1 move, a system of ever-tighter travel restrictions had been put in place as the severity of the Covid-10 crisis escalated worldwide.

Seoul advised its own citizens not to travel overseas, nullified the validity of short-term visas for incoming travelers, and required a medical certificate for all longer-term visa applicants.

Early in the crisis, all persons arriving in Korea, regardless of their passport, were required to download an app that monitors their state of health, and reports it to authorities, on a daily basis for 14 days.

On April 1, that genteel measure for incoming travelers was upgraded significantly.

Visitors of all nationalities have since been required, in addition to installing the app, to undergo a Covid-19 test upon arrival and – even when that test is negative – to undergo a 14-day quarantine.

Locals and foreign residents are able to self- quarantine at home. Tourists are required to quarantine in a government-designated facility, at a cost of $100 per night, for 14 nights.

A Briton half way through his quarantine spoke to Asia Times about the experience by telephone.

Quarantine lockdown

A regular visitor to Korea, but not a long term resident, “M” entered the country on a three-month tourist visa, with full foreknowledge that he would be required to quarantine upon arrival.

Upon landing at Incheon International Airport, newly stringent immigration routines became abundantly clear.

“They have added a whole bunch of forms, there is so much paperwork to do,” he said. “You seem to be filling in the same information about eight times.”

After passing through temperature checks, quarantine, a stand where officials checked that the self-reporting phone app had been installed, immigration, baggage retrieval and Customs, M exited airside.

Groundside, he was immediately filtered by airport staff and troops on duty at the airport.

He and a group headed for the official quarantine facility were escorted to a bus stand. There, before alighting, all underwent a full Covid-19 test.

After that, it was an express bus ride to the quarantine facility – a hotel or corporate training facility converted, by the government. In M’s case, the facility lay on the outskirts of Seoul, near the domestic airport, Gimpo.

“On the coach, me and all the other ‘prisoners’ had a level of expectation that was quite low, so when we pulled into a hotel, we all felt a lot better,” he said. “It is a perfectly reasonable 4-star business hotel; I have stayed in places around the world that are a lot worse.”

Inside, guests were checked in and underwent yet another temperature check. Police guards in PPE were stationed at the entrances.

The rooms include bed, bathroom, large TV and wifi. Guests can receive package deliveries from outside – but no alcohol or cigarettes. Garbage is left in sealed bags outside the door.

Speakers in the room announce the delivery of the three “tolerable” daily meals, which are lunch boxes, left outside the door. The time of the daily temperature check, taken by an official who visits rooms wearing full PPE, is also announced.

Guests are not allowed to leave their rooms to use the gym or pool. Though rooms are not physically locked, there are apparently sensors installed.

“If you open your door and someone is nearby, a siren goes off,” M said. “And last week, a voice came over the speaker, ‘Will the people on the ninth floor please return to their rooms.’”

Still, M, who is halfway through his quarantine, is not complaining.

“It has been less hard than I thought,” he said. “I am feeling better than I do at home – I am doing shuttle runs, press ups and burpees.”  

Even so, the implications his experience has for the near future of international travelers are dire, M recognized.

“Travel is screwed, completely screwed,” he said. “No tourist would come in for this, it is only worth it as I am here for 90 days.”

Losers and winners?

The EU Chamber’s Heider reckons that much of the global travel industry – notably hotels and airlines – will write off 2020 with red ink.

“Airlines only expect to go back to pre-crisis levels by 2023 – many are preparing to downsize capacity in 2020, 2021 and 2022,” he said. “Tourism as we know it will only gradually improve.”

In Korea, the loss of the MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and expos) business will have a “big impact” on major hotels, Heider said, which will have to retain liquidity and try to recover losses in 2021.

Asia Times has learned separately of a major international hotel chain retaining legal consulting in order to downsize staff in Korea by 50%.

Though Heider is “cautiously optimistic” that group tours from China and Japan will return to Korea, the local tourism sector may see wins from closer to home.

“This two-week quarantine will stop people travelling overseas: If you want to spend two weeks in Europe, you are looking at a four weeks off work,” he said.  “The typical Korean tourist locations like Busan and Jeju Island will see increased local business because people will not travel overseas.”

That could help the country rebalance its increasing global tourism deficit.

According to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, in 2018, South Korea earned $15.3 billion in international tourism receipts, while South Koreans spent $32 billion overseas. The year prior, Korea had suffered a then-record $13 billion tourism deficit.

But that might be a small win in the big picture, said a foreign executive in the tourism industry, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  

“Korea did a great job in controlling the Covid situation, but now they are doing a great job in ruining the future in terms of both domestic business and international tourism,” he said. “The government have actually made it less attractive to do business in Korea.”