+ A

Travel agents exploit elderly with fake PyeongChang tours

Jan 09,2018
Taking advantage of the upcoming PyeongChang Olympics, some travel agencies are resorting to deceptive means to attract tourists.

Several travel agencies have been criticized for falsely advertising free tours of the PyeongChang Olympics venues, but instead taking guests on unrelated tours of local stores, markets and companies selling medical products and cosmetics.

The agencies have been using the fake ads to target elderly people who live far away from Pyeongchang, Gangwon, in an attempt to lure them into buying medical and dietary products from the stores. The tours are advertised in cultural centers where older people regularly gather.

“The head of the senior citizen community center informed my father that he could get a tour of the Olympics [venues],” wrote one internet user whose father was victim to a travel agency scheme. “But when he got there, they took him to cosmetics stores, herbal medicine shops and the market. I wonder if this counts as fraud.”

The fake ads usually offer a package deal including a free tour of an Olympics venue and popular tourist sites in Pyeongchang with free breakfast and a free bus ride. In return, tourists must visit the stores and markets that sell local products. However, instead of being shown an Olympics venue, the guests are taken straight to the stores.

One agency in South Jeolla - 305 kilometers (189 miles) away from Pyeongchang - took 30 people to a medical company that sold products for 1 million won ($940) as their first destination in Icheon, Gyeonggi. They were then taken to a nearby dietary supplement store. Icheon is more than 80 kilometers from Pyeongchang and will not host any Olympic events.

The ad informed tourists that they would get a tour of the Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre on Dec. 22, but when they finally arrived in Pyeongchang they were taken to a nearby sheep ranch. The ski competitions for the Olympics are set to take place at Alpensia.

When tourists asked if they were at the ski resort, the driver replied, “Even if you go to Alpensia, there’s nothing to see.”

The tourists were unaware that the PyeongChang Organizing Committee for the 2018 Olympic and Paralymic Winter Games (Pocog) had actually closed off visits to the venues as a safety precaution during construction starting in November.

“Because we are currently carrying out last minute fixes and finishing up the construction for the Olympics venues,” said Pyeongchang County Mayor Shim Jae-guk, “visits to the arenas are prohibited.”

“Do not fall for travel agencies offering free or cheap tours of the Olympics venues. When the Olympics start, anyone can visit the venues,” warned the mayor.

The skyrocketing prices of motels and hotels in Pyeongchang received public criticism last year, but it seems the county’s image is further tarnished with this incident.

“I feel like I was totally conned,” said a 67-year-old participant surnamed Kim. “I never want to go back to Pyeongchang ever again.”

After their support funds were cut off last year, travel agencies are using these seemingly deceptive tours to stay competitive.

Travel agencies attract tourists through ads, while bus drivers take them to stores selling local commodities. Part of the profit that the stores accrue from the tourists is given to the travel agencies and the bus drivers.

Last year, Pyeongchang County offered 250,000 won for travel agencies that provided a one-day tour that included a visit to one site with paid admission and a traditional market or festival to promote Pyeongchang and the upcoming Games. To receive the fund, an agency had to attract at least 25 tourists with a tour bus that seats 45 passengers. However, the county was short of 1 million won in September as it did not attract the amount of tourists it expected, and stopped giving out the funds.

Though the flyers for the tours are emblazoned with “Free Olympics Venue Tour,” the travel agencies have avoided fraud charges by adding “sightsee inside the bus” in small print at the bottom of the page.

The county has yet to come up with a plan to prevent the deceptive advertisements.

BY KIM HO, PARK JIN-HO AND LAURA SONG [song.hankyul@joongang.co.kr]