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China blocking group tours to Korea again

Dec 20,2017
The Chinese government appears to have re-imposed its ban on group tours to Korea, raising doubt that President Moon Jae-in's recent state visit to Beijing did much to mend strained ties.

Tourism industry sources in Beijing and Shandong Province told the JoongAng Ilbo that recent applications for group tour visas were rejected by China's tourism authority without any clear explanation, which came as a surprise because the same government agency lifted the group tour ban in those two regions just last month.

Chinese authorities were said to have told tour agencies in Beijing and Shandong that the issuing of group tourist visas to Korea will be blocked again from Dec. 20, according to several people in China's tourism business.

One employee at a tour agency in Beijing said he was told that group tours to Korea will be banned again starting this Friday, adding at least five companies in Beijing had their visa requests rejected so far under the latest ban.

Kim Jong-taek, secretary general of the Asia Inbound Tourism Association, said he expected the Korean tour ban to be entirely lifted by February, but was taken aback by the news that Beijing has decided to backpedal. Nearly 130 tour agencies based in China are affiliated with his association.

The shock was shared by the head of a Chinese tour agency, whom on the condition of anonymity said she thought Moon's visit to China last week would return the business situation to normal. Earlier this year, Beijing banned group tours to Korea to retaliate against Seoul for its decision to deploy a U.S. anti-missile shield.

"The Chinese government has never made any official statement on the matter," said Kim, "since it began to show early signs last year it would impose the group tour ban, or even when it partially lifted the prohibition late last month."

He continued, "I still don't know why it's turning down the visa applications, but I hope it has to do with some sort of an administrative lapse."

China has never formally admitted the ban in the first place, but its travel agencies were forced to stop offering group tours to Korea since March 15.

Just days before Moon made a four-day state visit to China from Dec. 13, Beijing surprised Seoul by lifting the ban for Beijing and Shandong, though without any explanation.

Beijing's backtracking seems to contradict Moon's confident statement Tuesday that his visit to China bore "extremely fruitful accomplishments" in bilateral economic, political and security sectors, stressing he had "established the foundation for Korean-Chinese ties to return to all-out normalization."

BY YEH YOUNG-JUNE [lee.sungeun@joongang.co.kr]