|Myeong-dong shopping district in Seoul seems almost empty Wednesday, after the Chinese government banned its people from going on group tours to Korea. / Korea Times photo by Choi Won-suk|
By Park Jae-hyuk
People speaking Chinese were noticeably absent from the shopping district of Myeong-dong, Seoul, Wednesday morning.
This was the day when the Chinese government’s de facto ban on the country’s tour agencies from offering group tours to Korea went into effect as part of retaliatory measures against the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery here.
“I think the number of Chinese tourists has declined almost 70 to 80 percent recently,” said an information clerk who was helping foreign tourists near Myeong-dong Theater. “There are obviously fewer Chinese tourists here than Japanese visitors these days.”
The measure has been enough to make Chinese group tourists almost disappear from their favorite destination in Korea, where they had once crowded to shop for cosmetics and luxury goods.
Missing their most lucrative customers, owners of so-called “road shop brands,” such as Nature Republic, The Face Shop and Innisfree, were struggling to attract Japanese visitors who were filling the vacancy left by the Chinese.
Most of store clerks were speaking Japanese, and distributing leaflets and maps in the language. But they said the number of tourists from Japan is not large enough to make up for Chinese shoppers who had literally swept away goods from cosmetics display stands.
“The number of Japanese tourists is almost the same as before,” said a Japanese speaking part-timer who was distributing leaflets for a massage parlor. “But the number of Chinese has considerably decreased this year.”
A Holika Holika cosmetics store employee said: “Japanese tourists will be hard to find here, when the country’s winter vacation season is over. There seem to be relatively more of them than Chinese, but the absolute figure is not that large.”
The stores were reluctant to disclose the specific impact on their sales from the THAAD dispute, but most of them admitted that the issue has damaged their profits.
A clerk at a Vprove cosmetics store said, “The number of Chinese customers fell by half after the THAAD issue surfaced and it has affected sales at our store.”
Some employees complained about customers who just accept freebies, while being reluctant to buy anything. Currency exchangers also griped about their recent difficulties because of the decreasing number of customers and the small amount of money they change.
“Most visitors these days exchange less than 100,000 won,” said one surnamed Shin. “Until last year, there were a lot of customers who exchanged more than 200,000 won.”
Still, some tourist buses transported Chinese groups to the main Lotte Department Store branch in the afternoon. However, industry officials expected tourist groups will completely disappear this weekend.
“Those who came to Korea before the measure have yet to leave,” one official said. “Myeong-dong district will become quieter, after they leave the country on Thursday and Friday.”
The official said duty free shops are struggling to attract tourists from the Middle East and Southeast Asia. But most road shops, which have depended on Chinese tourists, seemed to lack any special measures to cope with the current situation.