South Korea: Jeju Island soldiers on despite dwindling Chinese arrivals

Jeju Island recorded a sharp decline in Chinse tourists following geopolitical tension between South Korea and China. Source: Shutterstock

THE tourist-heavy island of Jeju in South Korea has long been a favorite among Chinese tourists, but retaliatory economic measures taken by China have caused numbers to plummet in the past few months. 

Geopolitical tension between the two nations caused a drop in arrivals as measures taken by China include banning tour packages to certain areas of South Korea.

In March, it was reported that while a cruise ship docked at Jeju Island, Chinese passengers remained on-board in a display of solidarity with their government’s vociferous opposition to South Korea.

Bai, from China’s western province of Gansu, told Reuters, “As Chinese, we surely should answer the government’s call at a special time, which meant not going to Jeju Island.”

On top of that, airlines such as China Eastern Airlines Corp Ltd and Spring Airlines Co Ltd stopped online offers of flights between Jeju Island and China’s eastern city of Ningbo.

China is Jeju’s biggest tourist market. Source: Savvapanf Photo/Shutterstock

Kim Sangcheol, assistant manager for Jeju Tourism Organization’s overseas marketing department, told Travel Wire Asia at the recent ITE HCMC, that while the Chinese market used to dominate 80 percent of the island’s tourists, the figure had dropped to 60 percent.

Despite the tension, there appeared a glimmer of hope for China-South Korea relations China approved a plan by South Korea’s Jeju Air China to double its flights to the Chinese city of Weihai from June 2.

South Korea’s top low-cost carrier Jeju Air said it first applied to increase its flights to Weihai, to 14 a week from seven, in early April, but China had not approved the plan because of the diplomatic row.

“The political tension has had a far-reaching impact on flights between the two countries, including new flights, added flights and charter flights,” Jeju Air spokesman Park Jung-Jun said. “The latest move raises hopes the tension is easing.”

An unlikely MICE destination

As Jeju learns to depend less on Chinese tourist dollars, it looks to East Asia, a market that is increasingly interested in South Korea’s offerings. Because of Jeju’s naturally gifted landscape, the island is becoming a hotspot for hosting incentive tours for East Asian companies.

This is especially apparent for Vietnamese tourists in Jeju, 70 percent of whom visit the island as part of a MICE tour. The remaining 30 percent are there on leisure packages.

“This is because the FIT (free independent traveler) market in Vietnam is [very small]. Only a few people plan their own travels so most of the travelers we get are part of MICE groups,” Sangcheol said.

“It’s good for MICE groups because it’s easy to make an itinerary and people like the scenery in Jeju.”

On top of that, Vietnam enjoys direct air connectivity from major cities like Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. While not regular, several airlines that operate in Vietnam already service the island, giving Vietnam an edge over many other East Asian countries.

“I also heard that Da Nang will be connected directly [to Jeju] soon,” Sangcheol added.

The International Convention Center (ICC) Jeju with a capacity of 4,000. Source: EQRoy/Shutterstock

Despite fewer direct flights, the organization wants to focus on other potential markets such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines.

“MICE groups can’t travel long distance but Jeju is pretty near. And if they partner with travel agencies, they can [encourage] direct routes,” Sangcheol said. “[The travel agencies] bring a considerable number of tourists; that number is enough to operate non-regular direct flights.”

Traveling through Incheon International Airport in the capital of Seoul proves a hindrance for large MICE groups, and he hopes to work with more agencies to introduce direct routes in the future.

Amenities wise, the International Convention Centre Jeju can host up to 4,000 delegates while the Jung-Mun Tourist Complex in the south of the island has several business-friendly facilities, a collection of luxury hotels, and duty-free shopping options.

Despite a relatively new boom, familiar luxury brands are on the rise – such as Hyatt and Somerset – in Jeju as investors take notice. One of the biggest projects to set up shop there is Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in Jeju Shinhwa World, a massive resort and entertainment development that will also feature a casino, retail spaces, a theme park, and a K-pop entertainment center.

The property will feature 240 guest rooms, suites and villas, as well as facilities for weddings and corporate events. The in-house spa will be designed in the style of a Korean tea house.

“Four Seasons is a huge deal. We welcome Four Seasons,” Sangcheol said.