South Korean visitors to the US are surging. After declining for the last several years, their numbers jumped by almost 20% for the months of November 2019 to January 2020 compared to the same period a year earlier. This meant an additional 120,000 more South Koreans came to the country during these months, according to estimates from the US National Travel & Tourism Office. It was by far the largest increase in tourists among the US’s major sources of visitors.
South Korea’s newfound enthusiasm for US travel is likely the result of many Koreans’ current disdain for Japan. Since July 2019, South Korea and Japan have been in a trade war, which began when the Japanese government restricted the export of chemical materials to South Korea that are key to the South Korean consumer electronics industry. Japan’s move was seen as retaliation for a ruling by a Korean court order demanding Nippon Steel, Japan’s largest steelmaker, compensate the families of some Koreans who were forced into labor for the company during World War II. South Korea was occupied by Japan from 1910 to 1945, and many Koreans were forced to work in factories or into prostitution. The trade war has led to a large decline in trade between the two counties, and impacted global supply chains for electronics.
Historically, Japan has been the top destination for South Korean travelers. But due to the trade war, many South Koreans have boycotted travel to Japan. It’s had a massive effect. In the last last five months of 2019, there was a 60% drop in tourists from South Korea compared to a year earlier.
The US appears to be gaining a share of those South Koreans who don’t want to travel to Japan. China, Vietnam, and Thailand are the other top destinations for South Korean tourists. Besides Thailand, which has not seen an increase in Korean visitors, those countries do not report tourism numbers past September 2019, so we don’t know yet if they have also benefitted.
The spike of South Korean visitors may be short lived. The US recently implemented tighter entry restrictions travelers visiting from South Korea due to the large number of coronavirus cases in the country. Visitors to the US are likely to decline in March as a result, and by the time the coronavirus outbreak is under control, Japan and South Korea’s relationship may have stabilized.