China is trying to punish South Korea by keeping its tourists away


China couldn’t get its way with South Korea, so it’s striking back hard.

Korean state media Yonhap reported yesterday (March 2) that China’s national tourism administration has told travel agencies to stop selling group packages and offering free trips from Beijing to South Korea. Since July, relations between Beijing and Seoul have been icy after South Korea agreed to let the US deploy an antimissile system, a move China strongly opposes.

China has responded to the antimissile system, called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, with more than 40 retaliatory moves over the last seven months, according to Yonhap. China has expelled Korean missionaries from the country, denied applications of K-pop stars who wanted to enter China, and cancelled an exhibition celebrating 25 years of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

But things escalated after Lotte Group, the Korean conglomerate perhaps best known as the maker of Choco Pie, formally signed a land-swap deal with the military on Feb. 28. In exchange for its golf course, the site of the antimissile system, Lotte will get military land east of Seoul. As a result, over the past four days, Chinese consumers, business partners, and bureaucrats have rallied and protested against Lotte, and hackers have also attacked its website.

With its latest travel ban, China thinks it can seriously hurt South Korea. China has been the largest overseas travel source (paywall) for South Korea since 2013, when Chinese visitors overtook those from Japan. Millions of mainland visitors have flocked to South Korea’s Jeju island since 2008, when it implemented a 30-day visa-free policy for Chinese tourists. In January, however, Chinese aviation authorities rejected eight charter flights from Korea bound for mainland China without offering specific reasons, though it’s widely believed to be retaliation against the antimissile system, according to the Korea Times.

The tour-group ban has apparently expanded beyond Beijing. Tuniu, a Chinese online travel agency, took down all travel offerings to South Korea today (March 3). A salesman with Tuniu confirmed (paywall) with the Financial Times that the firm had “removed all tours to South Korea” due to the antimissile system.

Search on "Korea travel" returns "no matching product" today (Mar.2)
Search on “Korea travel” returns “no matching product” today (Mar.2) (Quartz/Tuniu)

Still, it’s possible China’s plan to hurt Korean tourism could backfire. When China tried to throttle tourism to Taiwan—the mainland was also its biggest source of international visitors—Taiwan actually reported an increase in tourism.

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