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2017 tourism deficit on track to reaching record

Jan 01,2018

More than 24 million Koreans traveled abroad in the first 11 months of 2017, nearly double the number of foreign visitors to the country, raising the prospect of a record tourism deficit.

According to the Korea Tourism Organization, Asia’s fourth-largest economy saw an 18.2 percent jump in the number of nationals going abroad from January to November at 24.09 million, marking the first time the figure surpassed 24 million.

Considering an average of two million people go overseas every month, the final tally is expected to break the 26 million mark when the figure from December is included.

While the number of outbound Koreans increased sharply, the number of foreign tourists coming in dropped by more than 23 percent in the first 11 months of last year, a direct effect of China’s ban on group tours to Korea after Seoul deployed a U.S. missile shield known as Thaad that China believes threatens its security.

After Beijing imposed the restriction on March 15, the number of Chinese coming into the country dropped. Between last January and October, the figure was half of what it was in 2016, 3.5 million versus 7 million.

The dearth of Chinese visitors contributed to an overall drop in tourism last year, from a record 17.2 million foreign visitors in 2016 to just 12.2 million in 2017.

The rise in Koreans going abroad coupled with a decline in foreign visitors resulted in a wider tourism deficit last year.

In the first 10 months, the tourism deficit stood at a record $11.14 billion, more than double the figure from the year before. When the figures for the last two months of 2017 are added to the tally, the deficit is expected to exceed $12 billion for the first time.

That said, the picture for Korea’s tourism industry looks rosier this year as Chinese authorities have begun slowly lifting the ban on group tours, though they continue to maintain some restrictions.

Agencies will not be allowed to use Lotte-related establishments, promote tours online or take customers to Korea on cruise ships or chartered planes.

Lotte gave up its golf course in Korea to host Thaad last year.

With near certainty that the inclusion of December figures will keep 2017 tourism numbers below the 2016 record, the year will represent the second time that the country has seen a reduction in number of visitors to Korea in the past decade.

In 2015, Korea experienced a 6.8 percent decline in foreign visitors, from 14.2 million to 13.2 million, due to an outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome that left 39 dead.

BY KANG JIN-KYU [kang.jinkyu@joongang.co.kr]