Thais still leery of travel to S Korea

Tourists enjoy visiting a Pink Muhly grass field at Pocheon herb island in Gyeonggi. In South Korea, Muhly usually turns pink and purple from the middle of September and keeps its pinkish colour until November. (Photo: Wassayos Ngamkham)
Tourists enjoy visiting a Pink Muhly grass field at Pocheon herb island in Gyeonggi. In South Korea, Muhly usually turns pink and purple from the middle of September and keeps its pinkish colour until November. (Photo: Wassayos Ngamkham)

Thai tourism operators and South Korean authorities are joining forces to reinvigorate tourism in the two countries as the Covid-19 pandemic is starting to ease with the lifting of most travel restrictions.

However, South Korean tourism agencies have been concerned that their government’s remaining travel curbs and tough measures against illegal job seekers from Thailand will still obstruct efforts to attract Thai travellers.

Recently, the Gyeonggi Tourism Organisation and Korean Air jointly held a familiarisation tour for travel agents and tour operators from Thailand to promote new tourism destinations in the Gyeonggi province.

After spending more than two years in a lockdown because of the pandemic, South Korea reopened to fully vaccinated foreign tourists from April 1 as the country loosened most coronavirus restrictions.

Restrictions remain

From April 1, South Korea resumed visa-free entry without quarantine for tourists from 46 countries, including Thailand, though visitors are still required to register for a Korea Electronic Travel Authorisation (K-ETA) within 72 hours prior to travel.

According to the Gyeonggi Tourism Organisation, the number of Thai travellers to South Korea was the highest among Southeast Asian countries in 2019.

However, Kang Dong-Han, director of the Gyeonggi Tourism Organisation’s international tourism department, admitted the requirement for the RT-PCR test upon arrival had discouraged visitors from travelling to South Korea.

”There were complaints about the inconvenience and additional costs incurred from the test. Many may decide to book trips to Japan instead,” he said.

However, the test requirement was dropped on Oct 1.

Mr Kang says other countries that have also relaxed travel curbs may also snatch Thai tourists away from South Korea.

Japan, which is another popular destination for Thai tourists, reopened to tourists from Oct 11. It has also reinstated visa-free travel for several countries, including Thailand, while Hong Kong lifted mandatory hotel quarantine for foreign arrivals from Sept 26.

“South Korean authorities will now have to consider retaining only the K-ETA registration to boost competitiveness to attract tourists,” Mr Kang said.

He said large numbers of Thais travelling to South Korea to work illegally were also sent back to Thailand during the pandemic.

When South Korea reopened, authorities have to renew tough measures against illegal Thai job seekers.

This has been a concern for the South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and tourism-related agencies in Gyeonggi as the issue will hinder efforts to promote tourism among Thais, he said.

”Thais planning to visit South Korea are concerned their K-ETA applications may be rejected and they may be denied entry by immigration authorities upon arrival due to strict screening,” he said.

South Korean authorities have toughened entry screening to deal with “little ghosts” — Thais who travel to South Korea to work illegally — whose numbers have spiked since Seoul opened the nation’s borders to tourism in April.

Tourists ride a cable car to take a look at natural scenes in Gyeonggi, which is adjacent to North Korea. Wassayos Ngamkham

There are still more than 139,000 Thais working illegally in South Korea, Mr Kang said, citing figures from the Thai embassy in Seoul.

He added the number of Thai travellers to South Korea has declined by 95% during the pandemic.

After the country’s reopening, South Korean authorities have been trying to come up with measures to address Thai tourists’ concerns about the strict travel curbs, he said.

In the future, tourists may not be required to apply for a visa again to ensure easier entry, though they would still be required to register for a K-ETA, Mr Kang said, adding the K-ETA system will be improved further to ensure more accuracy in entry screening and ease of use.

Calls for further easing

Charoen Wangananont, president of the Thai Travel Agents Association, said more than 600,000 Thais visited South Korea annually before Covid-19, but travel was suspended during the pandemic.

As the pandemic started to ease, South Korea has retained certain travel curbs, such as the K-ETA application requirement, he said.

”Sometimes, entry is denied because some travellers are singled out by a random check from the artificial intelligence technology for entry screening,” he added.

If South Korean authorities want to draw back Thai tourists, they should further drop restrictions to make entry easier for travellers.

He said the problem of illegal job seekers from Thailand has been around long before the pandemic.

”During the pre-pandemic period, the number of actual tourists from Thailand was still more than those who came to work illegally in South Korea,” Mr Charoen said.

”I believe there will still be a positive trend for South Korea’s tourism industry if we work together to devise marketing plans to attract at least 1 million travellers from Thailand a year,” Mr Charoen said.

”Tourism operators must constantly roll out new and interesting tourism products to satisfy the needs of tourists, Mr Charoen said.

”The Gyeonggi province is an interesting example. It is suitable for holding incentive tours or group tours to see the local way of life, culture, and agriculture there, he said.

Situated in northwestern South Korea, Gyeonggi is the country’s most populous province with a 13 million population, consisting of 28 cities and three counties. The provincial capital is Suwon.

Gyeonggi means ”the area surrounding the capital” as it surrounds Seoul, the country’s capital and largest city.

Gyeonggi is also adjacent to Incheon, home of Incheon International Airport.

Alternative tourist spots

Mr Charoen said more Thai tourists are expected to travel to satellite cities around Seoul, prompting tour companies to come up with new tourism products to serve tourists’ needs.

Thanapol Cheewarattanaporn, managing director of Quality Express Co, said next year will bring fierce post-pandemic competition in tourism.

Tourism businesses will have to work closely with their governments to pull in as many tourists as possible, he said.

South Korea is still a popular tourist destination for Thais and the country should further drop travel requirements to draw Thai tourists back, he added.

Mr Thanapol said the recent familiarisation tour was intended to promote and introduce satellite cities around Seoul to Thai tourists.

Despite Gyeonggi offering a wide range of tourist spots, cultural and natural attractions, many Thais may still prefer already popular destinations such as Seoul, Busan or Jeju Island, Mr Thanapol said.

Mr Kang said that Gyeonggi is ideal for enjoying travel throughout the year, no matter the season.

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