The United States just announced its first case of a new virus that has claimed nine lives in China and sickened hundreds. Nations worldwide are beefing up measures to block the spread of the coronavirus strain, which originated in Wuhan city in central China. As one of China’s closest neighbors, South Korea is no exception.
Currently, a Chinese woman with the virus is being treated in isolation at a hospital in Incheon. The Ministry of Health and Welfare said it is examining further suspected cases. Specifically, the South Korean authorities are examining four people who showed suspicious symptoms, three of whom were in contact with the confirmed patient. The other possible case was reported directly by the patient.
The South Korean government is on alert as the annual number of Chinese visitors is back on the rise. The country operates 45 air routes and 25 shipping routes to China, covering as many as 50 Chinese cities.
The outbreak imposes economic and political risks on South Korea.
The retail industry that feels the most threatened. The duty-free industry, in particular, is feeling a sense of crisis should the number of Chinese visiting South Korea fall again, after recording a steady rise recently.
The Korea Tourism Organization earlier predicted that the number of Chinese tourists visiting South Korea this year could increase by up to 25 percent, from last year’s 6 million to nearly 7.5 million. It also predicted that measures introduced by the Chinese government to ban Korean cultural products in China, which began in 2016 due to the conflict over South Korea’s deployment of a U.S. missile defense system, THAAD, would be lifted soon.
The department store industry had been seeing positive signs prior to the outbreak. The country’s two largest department stores, Shinsegae Department Store and Hyundai Department Store, said their sales to Chinese customers rose by 46.5 percent and 42.6 percent, respectively, year-on-year.
However, as Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to contain the virus, which has not only spread to Wuhan but also to the mega-cities of Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai, the atmosphere in South Korea has changed.
Against this backdrop, some predict that the number of tourists expected to come to the South during the Chinese New Year holiday, one of the most popular seasons for Chinese people to travel abroad, could actually decrease.
There is a possibility that the Chinese authorities may request restraint if the virus spreads more during the massive travel rush that occurs during the Chinese New Year. If the quarantine level at domestic airports increases, Chinese tourists will be further discouraged.
The outbreak of the virus in China has also politically affected South Korea. This comes amid signs that North Korea is banning the entry of Chinese tourists in a move to stop the spread of the virus in the country.
North Korea is said to have recently asked two China-based travel agencies that offer North Korean tour programs, Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours, to stop Chinese tourists from visiting the North until a vaccine for the deadly virus is developed. Accordingly, the travel agencies are refunding travelers for previously booked tours.
The Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party, reported on January 22 that the recent rapid spread of the new coronavirus in China had caused huge damage domestically, adding that corresponding measures are being taken in China.
It has yet to be confirmed whether there is any outbreak of the virus in the North Korean region bordering China. However, as cases have been confirmed outside of China, including in Japan, South Korea and the United States, Pyongyang might have felt the necessity to block its border in advance.
The border closure is a blow to Seoul, which is desperately seeking new measures to normalize stalled inter-Korean relations — including tourism.
The South Korean Ministry of Unification, which oversees policy toward the country’s northern neighbor, hinted last week that barriers to independent travel to the North could be removed in the future.
At the time, the ministry said individual tourism was not subject to sanctions and that “the government is actively reviewing [policy] to allow South Koreans to visit North Korea individually as long as the safety for the citizens can be guaranteed.”
However, if North Korea continues to close its borders to tourists due to the outbreak, it will be impossible for Seoul to pursue its move. Accordingly, Seoul’s main tactic for patching ties with Pyongyang is also out of the question for the time being.