INCHEON -- South Korea's western port city of Incheon, the nation's biggest gateway for tourism, logistics and trade exchanges with China, is seeing restored vitality.
Expectations are rising that the two countries' relations, extremely frozen over the deployment of a US missile defense system to South Korea, will improve after liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in's inauguration early this month.
Chinese President Xi Jin-ping said during his meeting with Moon's special envoy Lee Hae-chan in Beijing Friday that he hopes to get bilateral ties back on track.
Amid the diplomatic thaw, a subtle change is felt especially in the looks of South Korean vendors arriving at the port's passenger terminal with products from China.
Chinese tourists are waiting for customs clearance at an international ferry passenger terminal in Incheon, west of Seoul, on May 19, 2017. (Yonhap)
China's customs inspections, which had been strengthened due to the THAAD system, seem to be somewhat alleviated, a vendor, only identified by his last name Lee, said Friday.
"Not long ago, Chinese inspectors searched even our pockets when we departed China, but yesterday they let us easily go through customs," he said.
A Chinese vendor, asking to not be named, also said the frozen atmosphere in China looks to be thawing little by little.
"The amount of products that Chinese merchants are bringing into South Korea from China also seems to be on a gradual increase," he said.
In fact, the number of ferry passengers on routes linking Incheon to Chinese cities is showing a slow recovery.
Since the Chinese government's ban on traveling to South Korea on March 15, the number of ferry passengers dived 30.3 percent to 55,804 in March from a year ago, and 65.5 percent to 34,686 last month.
But the comparable figure recorded 22,755 during the first 18 days of May, producing a daily average of 1,264. The daily average is a 9.3-percent increase from last month's 1,156.
Friday alone, 1,267 passengers from six Chinese cities, including Weihai, Shidao and Dandong, entered Incheon aboard ferries.
"Vendors still make up the most passengers, but Chinese tourist groups will significantly increase as in the past once China's tour ban is lifted," a ferry official said.
The Incheon port authorities are also trying to recover the number of cruise ships entering the port.
This year, cruise ships from Chinese cities were originally scheduled to dock at Incheon 31 times, but the figure plunged to eight due to a flood of trip cancellations on account of THAAD.
Up until Friday this year, only five cruise ships carrying a mere 14,138 Chinese passengers entered the port, according to the authorities.
"Cruise entries will be activated again once the ties between the nations return to normal," Ahn Kil-seop, a port authority official, said. (Yonhap)