China set to resume tours to South Korea amid signs of thaw in relationship

Shoppers in the Myeongdong area of Seoul, South Korea, on May 18, 2017. Photo: Reuters 

China's travel agencies have partly resumed sales of group tours to South Korea, a reflection of the thawing relations between the two countries which had plummeted after the deployment of a US-built anti-missile system in South Korea for roughly one year.

Tour agencies in Beijing and Shandong province have been allowed to restart sales of group tours to South Korea, the official Xinhua News Agency reported on Monday.

The Xinhua report said that Haitao Travel, the largest South Korean tour agency in North China, sent a group tour to South Korea on December 2, which is the first since March when Seoul decided to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in a golf course previously owned by Lotte Group, a South Korean retail giant.

However, the resumed group tours did not include cruise tours, charter tours and consumption at Lotte Group's supermarkets, according to the Xinhua report.

Lotte Group became a target of criticism in China after it sold a golf course in the southern South Korean county of Seongju for use as the deployment site of the THAAD system in a land swap deal with South Korea's defense ministry in late February.

The deployment angered Beijing, which reportedly responded with economic retaliation including banning group tours to South Korea, pulling South Korean soap operas off the air and disrupting entertainment activities of South Korean stars and activities of South Korean businesses in China.

In September, South Korean news organizations reported about the decision of Lotte Group to sell its money-losing Lotte Mart supermarkets in China, which was widely seen as a result of Beijing's boycott of South Korea's companies doing business in China since Seoul decided to install the controversial THAAD system.

News about the resumption of sales of group tours to South Korea initially emerged in early November, when a Chinese enterprise was reported to organize a 3,000-people tour to South Korea. The story was later denied by the Korea Tourism Organization, a government agency commissioned to promote the country's tourism industry, which said that it "did not receive any message from the Chinese government". Since South Korea decided to deploy the THAAD system, China has consistently insisted that business and people-to-people exchanges between the two countries would not be affected.

However, the Korea Tourism Organization released a series of statistics last month, which showed that the number of Chinese tourists travelling to South Korea slumped by 48.8 percent year-on-year to 2.87 million people in the January-August period, with the March-August period seeing the largest drop of 62.2 percent.

Some industry insiders partly attributed the lifting of the Chinese ban on group tours to Seoul's special visa policy introduced last month, which grants Chinese citizens, who have no criminal record and meet the requirements laid out by the South Korean government, a 15-day visa-free stay during the 2018 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Meanwhile, a November meeting between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his South Korean counterpart Kang Kyung-wha also cleared the shadow of the THAAD deployment to some extent, which Beijing sees as a big threat to its national security.

During the meeting, Kang pledged that Seoul would not consider additional THAAD deployments, would not join the US-led missile defense system and would not develop the trilateral military alliance between the US, Japan and South Korea.

Experts said that Kang's commitments stemmed from the fears that Seoul would be mired in a diplomatic dilemma amid Pyongyang's escalated nuclear provocations and that South Korea's economy would be badly damaged due to its close trade ties with China.

More than a week ago, an Aju Business Daily report said that South Korea's cultural and entertainment companies were in talks with China's companies to resume exchanges and cooperation in 2018. The report cited the producer of South Korea film "Be with God", who revealed that some Chinese importers were asking about the import of the film's copyright.

Many Chinese companies are preparing for the introduction of South Korea's cultural programs, with some waiting for the review of their application for the import of the South Korean cultural contents by China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television, the report quoted a South Korean entertainment company as saying.

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