Korean tourists stroll through Gyeongbokgung Palace wearing modernized Hanbok rented from a local shop in a file photo. Photo: Twitter.

As Covid-19 continues its global rampage and the Korea Meteorological Administration predicts this summer will be the hottest in 20 years, South Korea is gearing up for a vacation season like no other.

Like many countries across the globe, millions who planned to travel overseas this summer are now refocusing on domestic destinations.

Even though the EU announced on Tuesday that South Korea was on a list of 14 countries allowed to travel there, international travel still looks difficult. Anyone arriving in South Korea from overseas is required to undergo a strict two-week quarantine, either at home or at a government-run facility.

They cannot leave their homes and are monitored by government officials, while those in hotels pay about US$100 per night, and there are no visits to cafés, bars, gyms or gardens.

With few South Koreans spending more than one week on vacation, the burden of a two-week quarantine on return means holidaying domestically this year.

Even so, some winners in the sector are appearing and on the macro front it could be a plus for the economy.

A reeling sector

Not vacationing overseas will be a change for globe-trotting South Koreans, who are among the world’s most enthusiastic travelers.

According to the World Tourism Organization, despite a modest population of only 51 million, South Korea was in the global top 10 when it came to spending on overseas travel in 2018.

However, because of the freeze in international travel, the sector in South Korea has taken a savage hammering.

According to statistics from the Korean Tourism Association, or KTO, the number of foreign tourists visiting South Korea in March fell by 94.6% compared with the same period last year.

The number of tourists traveling abroad also dropped by 93.9% in the same month, while travel agencies saw their customer numbers drop 99% in May compared with the same period last year, according to local reports.

Hotels, motels, museums, attractions, tour guides, leisure facility operators, restaurants, bars and gift shops have suffered from the lack of foreign tourists.

According to the KTO, the average number of trips planned by about 20,000 respondents before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in late February was six times per year. Since the pandemic hit, that number has dwindled to 1.8, a drop of about 70%. 

Moreover, 84.9% of respondents who planned to travel in South Korea from late February to early May, when social distancing guidelines were eased as the country successfully flattened its curve, said they had canceled their trips.

South Korea’s once busy conference and exposition sector is in a virtual shutdown, airlines are engaged in a cut-price competition war and with ongoing jitters about Covid clusters, nearly one-third of South Koreans say they will not travel this year.   

A further blow is the fact that most schools reportedly plan to cut their summer vacations in half to only two weeks to make up for lost time earlier in the semester.

Jeju Island is known for its fine beaches and dramatic landscapes. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Who is going where?

But things are looking up as more than 70% of South Koreans say they are planning domestic holidays.

The KTO found that 36.8% will vacation this summer and 33.9% will vacation later in the year, while 29.4% will not. An informal Asia Times survey of 10 South Koreans was more upbeat, with all but one saying they planned domestic holidays from July to September.

“To go on vacation this year, domestic is the only option,” said Hwang Doo-jin, an architect. “I am going to visit Busan in July with my wife.”

South Korea’s second city, in the southeast, is known for its beaches and seafood, as well as its proximity to Gyeongju, an ancient Korean capital famed for its historic relics.

“I am going to Jeju Island this vacation – it is water, water, water – plus the local culture there is very different,” said Krys Lee, a writer. “Plus the incredible weather and the walking trails are beautiful.”

Jeju, a volcanic, sub-tropical island that lies off South Korea’s southern coast, has been dubbed “The Hawaii of Korea.” Best known as a beachside honeymoon destination until the early 1990s, when South Koreans started traveling overseas, it then turned to China, luring tour groups with visa-free travel.

In recent years it has gone premium, with up-market beach resorts and a range of premium boutique hotels, cafes, restaurants and galleries opening.

However, Lee Sung-min, a chef, is heading for the hills. “I’ll be going on a camping trip for five days in Gangwon Province,” he said. “There are mountains and there are rivers, which are great for fly fishing with my son.”

Gangwon, in South Korea’s northeast, is known for its spectacular mountain ranges and its long, white-sand beaches. The country’s most underpopulated province, its rugged high country provided the setting for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, and it has been, since the Games, the beneficiary of a high-speed rail link and express highway from Seoul.

Seung-jin Kang, a student, will also be vacationing in Gangwon. “It is full of mountains and hills, so you can enjoy views of lots of well-known mountains, for hiking,” he said.

Only one respondent said he would not take a vacation.

“I don’t think people will go on a trip for two days or a week, given the circumstances,” said Lim Baek-hoon, another college student. “I can go on a trip somewhere inside of the country, but only take a one-day trip.” 

Local promotions

The KTO says it will seek as many opportunities as possible to revive normal traveler numbers and bring a cash flow back into the industry. Promotions for domestic locations are well underway.

In May, Seoul City started marketing its “20-20 Seoul Travel Assistance Voucher.” Under this plan, citizens pay 150,000 won, cash, to receive a voucher worth 205,000 won that can be used on various metropolitan travel products and services.

The Ministry of Culture and Tourism, in collaboration with travel agency Interpark, is distributing the “National Gift Card Voucher,” which offers discounts on tours nationwide.

Finance firms are encouraging spending. Woori Card announced on Tuesday its “UniMile in Jeju” scheme, which packages a range of benefits, including 5% discounts on air tickets, accommodation, attraction admissions and restaurants on the island.

If people want to fly, airlines are desperate to sell seats. Earlier this month, the price of a one-way flight from Seoul to Gimhae, near Busan, fell to only 10,000 won (US$8.35), while a one-way ticket to Jeju Island was a measly 3,700 won ($3.09). 

Darkness settles over a traditional home in Jeju. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times


Dramatic discounting, however, is hardly good news for airlines and even with all international routes closed and super-cheap local flights, domestic passenger numbers are down.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport’s aviation statistics, the number of passengers on domestic flights stood at 3,768,416 last month, a drop of 33.8% from 569,436 in the same period last year.

“There is no way we can survive unless we can get as much support from the government as it can offer,” an official in the industry told local news media.

The Federation of Korean Industries predicted in its “Industrial Outlook Seminar for the Second Half” that airlines will have to wait three to four years to recover last year’s level of demand unless a Covid-19 vaccine is developed.

However, some tourism sub-sectors have benefitted from Covid-19. As people seek the simple joys of rural escapes while practicing social distancing, these sub-sectors are nowhere near the size of airlines in terms of economy of scale.

“After the outbreak of Covid-19, I think more people have gone hiking than ever before, because of the social distancing, and also because of being stuck at home,” said Kang, the student.

His comments concur with Asia Times’ observations over the last two months. Mountain hiking trails both inside and outside Seoul appear to host both more and younger hikers than previously. With Korean hobbyists being fanatical purchasers of all the necessary gear, that could spell a bonanza for hiking equipment suppliers.

Fully booked

Lee, the chef, was astonished, last weekend, to find a rural camping ground fully booked, well before the summer tourism season, which officially starts in July.

“A lot of Koreans are buying shiny new camping gear – I saw two Range Rovers parked there, with [premium] Coleman tents,” he said. “When you go to a camping shop all the $3000-$4000 tents are gone. They don’t have any stock left.”

Like Kang, he surmised that the demands for social distancing and the urge to escape from crowded cities were behind the sudden soaring popularity of the pastime.

And on the macroeconomic front, this year’s “vacation at home” season could prove to be a quiet plus for South Korea’s economy.

According to statista.com, the country has suffered tourism deficits every year since 2010. In 2017, that deficit stood at $14.7 billion, and in 2018, at $13.21 billion. The near-total shutdown of outbound travel could remedy that.

Even central Seoul provides plentiful mountain hiking trails. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times