|Chinese shoppers wait in a long line outside a duty free shop in downtown Seoul, in this April 24, 2018 file photo. More than 4,000 customers from China visited the nation's largest duty-free shops in Seoul during the last weekend. /Yonhap|
By Bahk Eun-ji
Chinese tourists forming long lines and clutching shopping lists at local duty free shops have started to reappear after a year-long diplomatic rift between Beijing and Seoul, the nation's largest operator of such stores said Monday.
According to Lotte Duty Free, more than 4,000 customers from China visited its duty-free outlets in Seoul over the weekend.
They were employees of Chinese health food company, Yi Yong Tang, who visited Korea on an incentive trip. The Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) said they were the largest incentive travel group to come here since 2017.
Package tours from China had long been absent due to a tourism boycott enforced by Beijing in retaliation against Seoul's decision to allow the deployment of a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in 2016.
The Chinese tourists' visit to Lotte Duty Free shop has a symbolic significance. Since the advent of the THAAD "crisis," the Chinese government allegedly banned its citizens from using any store affiliated with Lotte Group, after ther conglomerate "provided" the land to Seoul for the THAAD system.
As a result, few if any Chinese tourists could be spotted at Lotte Duty Free, department stores and Lotte World over the past three years.
With signs of a rebound in visitor numbers, especially since visa restrictions were eased during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February 2018, duty free officials said the outlook for their future performance is looking rosier.
"The outlook is rather bright since the number of inbound Chinese tourists is growing, with the expectation that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Korea in the first half of 2020," said an official at Lotte Duty Free. "So we don't believe this is a worrisome situation anymore."
The official said although two or three package tours from China had visited recently, this hadn't boosted the industry significantly yet. However, Beijing is expected to lift the tour ban around Xi's visit to Korea early this year, which will boost duty-free sales.
Meanwhile, more than 3,500 students in school excursion groups from China arrived in Korea for a winter vacation, the KTO said Monday.
Seven groups from various regions including Huadong, East China, will visit various tourist attraction in Seoul, Incheon and Daegu until next month.
The KTO said the groups were the largest school excursions seen during the winter season.
Group members are mainly elementary and middle school students, most of whom are on their first overseas trip, it added.