By Chung Hyun-chae
Tourism in Jeju Island, one of most popular destinations for visitors to Korea, has been hit hard by the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) epidemic, especially following a visit by a man who was confirmed to have the illness on Thursday.
According to the Jeju Special Self-Governing Provincial Tourism Association on Sunday, the number of tourists there on Friday and Saturday stood at 32,872 and 32,525, a fall of 13.7 percent and 16.1 percent, respectively, from a year before.
The association said an estimated 24,000 people visited the island on Sunday, down 32 percent from last year’s 35,436.
The reduced numbers came after it was found that the 42-year-old man carrying the MERS virus traveled to Jeju on June 5-8 just before showing the symptoms of the disease and was later diagnosed with MERS.
Before the report, Jeju was one of a few MERS-free regions in the country.
“Since MERS cases began to appear in Korea at the end of last month, the epidemic has affected the tourism industry here,” an association official from statistics division said.
“As only three days have passed since the man’s visit was reported, we’re not sure whether it will lead to further decline in the number of tourists. But it is true that fewer people are opting to visit Jeju,” she said.
Jeju Governor Won Hee-ryong said in a press conference on Friday that the number of both domestic and overseas tourists in June has been reduced to a fifth of last year’s.
The booking rates for pensions and hotels this month have also been decreased to 45 percent and 60 percent, respectively, while they were over 80 percent in May.
The Shilla Jeju hotel, where the confirmed patient stayed, shut down temporarily.
“The patient did not show any symptoms during his stay at our hotel. But we decided to close the hotel until worries about MERS subsides,” a Shilla official said.
No other hotels on Jeju are in a better situation.
“We are offering promotional events to attract people, giving two free roundtrip flight tickets to those who book more than two nights,” Kim Hyun-sook, manager of Kensington Jeju Hotel, said.
“As I heard that Monday could be ‘fateful’ to see whether the disease will spread on the island, I hope we can get through this soon,” she added.
Industry watchers agreed that if this situation continues, it will deal a serious blow to Jeju’s tourism industry.
“Including cancelations, the number of people who have booked trips to Jeju for July, the peak summer vacation season, has dropped 20 percent from a year before,” Won Hyung-jin, manager of HanaTour, the nation’s largest travel agency, said.
Besides Jeju, the whole country is seeing an overall drop in the number of tourists, particularly foreigners.
According to the Korea Tourism Organization, 1,760 foreigners cancelled their planned trips to Korea on Friday, a huge decline from some 5,400 on June 15.
“Cancellation has decreased. But what’s more serious is, we are receiving almost no new reservations from foreigners, especially Chinese who take up almost half of visitors to Korea,” said an official from Mode Tour, another big travel agency.