South Korea's tourism industry remains cautious on the impact of the Itaewon tragedy, after the country saw its on-year increases in the number of inbound tourists in recent months.
Around 337,000 tourists from abroad visited Korea in September, which is a 276 percent increase from the same month a year prior, according to data released by the Korea Tourism Organization on Monday. An outlook by UN World Tourism Organization in June this year showed that the gradual recovery was expected to continue throughout 2022, as more destinations ease or lift travel restrictions and pent-up demand is unleashed. South Korea's tourism industry has been also pinning hope on the rebound.
However, major festivals and events scheduled for early November have been canceled in the aftermath of the Itaewon Halloween tragedy, which caused at least 156 deaths, including 26 foreign victims.
Busan immediately canceled its Busan One Asia Festival 2022, scheduled for Sunday, the next day after the crowd surge. The event was co-hosted by the Busan Tourism Organization and Korea Tourism Organization. Thirteen K-pop groups were scheduled to perform with 40,000 fans at the site.
The Busan Culture & Tourism Festival Organizing Committee also indefinitely postponed the 17th Busan Fireworks Festival, which was scheduled for Nov. 5.
“Overall, large-scale events have been canceled to join the nation’s mourning period,” said an official of the BTO to The Korea Herald on Tuesday. “But about whether (the Itaewon tragedy) will affect inbound tourism, we cannot say for sure at the moment. We’ll have to wait and see."
An official at a local travel agency also said the impact is unclear so far.
“Itaewon was mainly visited by foreigners living in Korea rather than tourists visiting the country. Very few tourist programs had Itaewon as one of the destinations,” the official said.
Meanwhile, the increase in the number of inbound tourists suggests the global travel and tourism industry is slowly recovering and seeing its long-awaited rebound from the pandemic.
By country, 60,435 were American tourists and 29,531 were Chinese. From Japan, 27,560 tourists visited the country, which is a 2,313 percent increase from the same month last year.
KTO assessed that the extension of temporary visa-free entry into Korea from Japan, Taiwan and Macao attracted visitors. In the case of Taiwan, there was a 1,449 percent increase from 294 to 4,555 visitors. Hong Kong visitors increased 2,439 percent with the resumption of visa-free entry since July.
Other major countries of visa-free entry include the US, the UK, Germany, France and Russia -- which showed a combined 248 percent increase compared to the same month of the previous year. While Russia began visa-free entry for short-term visitors, or for Korea Electronic Travel Authorization (K-ETA) since April, the other four countries began visa-free entry since September 2021.
"The number seems to be comprised of individual travel without travel agencies,” said the official at the travel agency.
“There are still very few tourists who visit Korea through package tours. Mostly Chinese tourists usually took the majority of the package tours, but there is no inbound travel as Chinese package tours are still banned,” he said.
Korean tourists traveling abroad increased by 431.6 percent on-year to 619,954, which is 1.84 times the number of inbound foreign tourists.