By Jenna Gibson
After a rough 2015 marred by a major health scare, tourism to South Korea has bounced back and then some.
In newly released data from the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), 8.1 million tourists entered South Korea so far in 2016, a 21 percent increase over the same period in 2015. If the pattern holds for the rest of the year, Korea could break 16 million tourist entries for the first time in its history. In fact, the KTO is targeting 16.5 million tourists by the end of 2016.
Fear surrounding an outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in early 2015 depressed tourism to South Korea, causing tourist entries to fall for the first time since 2003. However, this 2016 jump seems to put the growth back on track, showing a 16.2 percent increase over 2014 levels, before the MERS scare.
Chinese visitors are by far the largest group, making up nearly 50 percent of visitors to Korea thus far in 2016. The next highest is Japanese visitors, who make up just 12 percent of tourist arrivals. Americans remain a small piece of the pie at only 5.4 percent of tourist arrivals, but this number did increase 13.5 percent year-over-year in May 2016.
KTO also highlighted the increase in group tour arrivals. People arriving as part of a large tour group increased by 35 percent this year so far, reaching 140,000. This method is particularly popular among Chinese tourists, and includes those who are awarded trips as a benefit through their employer.
Meanwhile, sales at duty free shops have seen a similar jump. In the first half of 2016, duty free shops racked up 5.77 trillion won ($5.1 billion) in sales, a 26.1 percent increase over the same period in 2015. According to the Korea Herald, if these numbers keep up they could reach a record 12 trillion won ($10 billion) for 2016. This would mean duty free sales doubled in the five years since 2011.
This increase is not entirely thanks to foreign visitors, but the increase in tourists has certainly helped. In the newly released 2016 data, Korean customers made up 57.1 percent of customers to those stores, but only accounted for 41.6 percent of sales. The average foreign national who shopped at a duty free store spent $345.
Jenna Gibson is the Director of Communications at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from Gustavo M’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.