|Japanese tourists look around in Myeong-dong, April 29. / Korea Times file|
By Kang Seung-woo
Amid escalating anti-Japan sentiment here, there are growing whispers that the upward trend of Japanese travelers to Korea may not continue.
The nation's tourism promotion agency said there are currently few signs of the influx stopping immediately, but it remains to be seen whether Korea would fall out of favor with Japanese tourists in the future.
In the wake of the Japanese government's trade restrictions on Korea and removal from its list of preferred trading partners over the past month, Korean consumers have launched campaigns to boycott Japan-made goods and trips to the neighboring country, escalating bilateral tensions.
"There are no official statistics on the decline of Japanese tourists coming to Korea," a senior official of the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) said on condition of anonymity.
"According to documents obtained from our Japan office, there were no signs that Japanese would stop traveling to Korea in July and August."
Japanese tourists are one of the biggest contributors to the nation's tourism industry, as evidenced by the fact that 2.95 million visited Korea last year, spending 2.6 trillion won ($2.13 billion).
According to the KTO official, 1.65 million Japanese traveled to Korea in the first half of the year, up 26.6 percent from 1.31 million in the same period a year earlier.
"As we logged a strong growth in the first half, we expected the second-half number may not be as good, but it is not easy to blame any possible decline on the current bilateral relations," he said.
On the back of the surging Japanese travelers, the KTO estimates that a total of 3.2 million people from Japan would visit here this year.
The KTO official believes the goal is within reach, even after the Japanese foreign ministry's issuance of a travel advisory for Korea on Aug. 4.
"The number means an 8.5 percent growth, and at this point we are expected to reach the goal unless the increase of Japanese tourists reverses," the official said.
It is not the first time a diplomatic row is unnerving the nation's tourism industry.
In 2016, Seoul decided to deploy a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula, angering the Chinese government which banned travel agencies from selling travel packages to Korea for the following year -- a move hitting the nation's tourism industry that was heavily dependent on Chinese tourists.
As a result, the number of Chinese travelers to Korea halved from 8.06 million in 2016 to 4.16 million in 2017.
Another senior KTO official also said the travel advisory is unlikely to prevent Japanese tourists from coming to Korea.
"It is like receiving a safety message when we go abroad. In addition, main sources of the Japanese tourists are women in their 20s and 30s who may not be much interested in politics, so the bilateral ties may not be a stumbling block to the tourists," she said.
According to the KTO, those age groups posted a 35 percent to 40 percent increase in the number of tourists in 2018 from the previous year.
The positive outlook aside, the KTO is also closely monitoring how the situation will develop in the long term given there is no end in sight for Korea's current anti-Japan sentiment for the time being.
"If the public opinion toward Japan deteriorates here, Japanese ― particularly group tourists from companies ― may reconsider traveling to Korea," the official said.