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BTS livery on a Jeju Air plane. Photo: Shutterstock Images

Drawn by BTS and K-drama, Chinese tourists return to S Korea in droves after years of upset

  • Chinese tourists visiting South Korea have surged this year, with travellers drawn by sites linked to BTS and television series Welcome to Samdal-ri

South Korean boy band BTS makes so little secret of its trips to Jeju, a resort island in their homeland, that travel agencies know just what spots the seven superstars have visited.

That makes it easy to organise tours for Chinese fans to take photos, with a hotel and a Buddhist temple some of the stops on the itinerary.

It is the same for Chinese viewers of the Korean television series Welcome to Samdal-ri, which was filmed on the volcanic island.

Travel policies are helping too, as Chinese nationals qualify for visa-free entry to South Korea for up to 30 days if in transit to a third country.

The number of Chinese tourists making the trip to Jeju has expanded every month from January to April this year, with the combined total for the four months more than all of 2023, according to the Jeju Tourism Organisation.

Travel to South Korea from China is booming again following the removal of barriers on both sides and the lure of cheap flights to a popular nearby country.

Chinese tourists increased by 470 per cent from January to April this year compared to the same months of 2023, the Korea Times reported.

As of the first quarter, Chinese visitors had made more than 1 million trips to South Korea, more than from any other country, according to China’s state-backed Xinhua News Agency.

South Korea had already become the second most popular foreign market for Chinese tourists last year, after Japan, travel analytics firm ForwardKeys said.

Chinese travellers, mindful of economic uncertainty at home, can reach South Korea in a few hours on relatively cheap flights, said Gary Bowerman, director of the tourism marketing firm Check-in Asia.

Round-trip flights to Seoul, from Beijing or Shanghai, stood at around US$180 as of mid-June.

These factors and its close proximity continue to make it a well-suited destination for the short-travel travel trips
Gary Bowerman, Check-in Asia

Chinese tourists in South Korea typically visit preserved historic sites in Seoul, while monuments to K-pop and Korean dramas are popular on Chinese video platforms.

Many tourists frequent urban zones with shops, entertainment and dining – all near their hotels – said Wendy Jiao, a representative of Shenzhen-based hotel platform CNbooking.

“South Korea does offer a forcing mix of fast-moving pop culture, lifestyle, themed cafes and well-being, plus diverse landscapes … and of course cuisine,” Bowerman said.

“These factors and its close proximity continue to make it a well-suited destination for short-travel travel trips.”

Halmurat, a 29-year-old Chinese national, visited South Korea for four days in February, and after a day of business meetings, visited a night market, the Itaewon nightlife quarter in Seoul and the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.

“At three hours past midnight, I felt that [Seoul] was still full of people,” said the Shanghai-based doctor.

“You can’t see this kind of scene in Shanghai.”


South Korean street vendors eagerly await Chinese tourists amid tit-for-tat Covid travel measures

South Korean street vendors eagerly await Chinese tourists amid tit-for-tat Covid travel measures

Travel operators in the eastern coastal city of Busan are waiting for more direct flights from China to promote the beaches, railways and coastal temples it is known for, said William Cho, global marketing manager with the Busan Tourism Organisation.

He said flights arrive from just three Chinese cities, with visitors making the trip to Busan only after visiting Seoul, and if they do not mind a train ride of more than two hours.

“We are waiting for and wish to have more airlines,” Cho said.

The boom followed the end of travel barriers that had disrupted tourism off and on for six years.

In 2017, China issued travel warnings to discourage trips to South Korea following its deployment of a US-designed anti-ballistic missile defence system. Years later, the outbreak of the coronavirus hit the bilateral tourism hard, and it was not until August when Chinese group travels resumed completely after Seoul lifted Covid testing rules on Chinese visitors.

Bowerman said 73 per cent of outbound travellers from China flew an average of four to five hours in the first quarter and “the vast majority” stayed abroad less than a week.

This year there’s an increase in arrivals, but it’s not what we expected
Wendy Jiao, CNbooking

“You’ll see more people being careful with their money and staying within the four-hour radius,” Bowerman told a webinar in May.

Chinese travellers were stocking up on presales of flights and hotel rooms in South Korea as of mid-June, said Zhang Chen, vice-president of the Chinese travel platform Fliggy.

But ForwardKeys said that from June to August, South Korea should expect just 11 per cent year-on-year growth in arrivals from China.

And CNbooking, which specialises in high-end hotels, found the growth too slow.

“This year there’s an increase in arrivals, but it’s not what we expected,” Jiao said.

“We hope it’s hotter next year, but can’t see that yet. Maybe the summer vacation will be better.”

Additional reporting by Mia Nulimaimaiti