By Lee Hyo-sik
Korea is expected to overtake Thailand to become the most popular outbound destination for Chinese tourists this year.
According to China's leading online travel agency, Ctrip, Monday, the number of visitors to Korea will increase by 40 percent in 2014 from a year earlier, thanks largely to the country's visa waiver program for those visiting its southern resort island of Jeju.
Seoul, Jeju and Korea's eastern province of Gangwon are the three most popular sites for Chinese tourists, the agency said.
About 43 percent of Korea-bound Chinese tourists come during July through September, with 51 percent of them visiting in groups.
According to the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO), nearly 2.1 million Chinese tourists came to Korea from January through May this year, up 57 percent from the same period last year.
''This trend will continue for the remainder of the year,'' a KTO spokesman said. ''At least 5.6 million Chinese visitors will enter the country in 2014, up 30 percent from 2013. The popularity of Korean dramas, movies and music have played a crucial role in attracting them.''
''A visa waiver program for Chinese nationals visiting Jeju Island and more air routes linking the island with Shanghai and other Chinese cities combined to attract more tourists,'' he said.
In 2008, the Korean government began allowing Chinese to stay on the island for up to 30 days without a visa.
Among hospitality-related businesses, hotels have benefited from the surging number.
''We have seen more Chinese nationals stay at our hotel over the past few years,'' a spokeswoman for Lotte Hotel said. ''The number of guests accounted for 20 percent of the total at our hotels in Seoul in the first half of 2014, up from 15 percent in 2013. At our Jeju unit, they have consistently accounted for over 22 percent of the total guests in recent years.''
In contrast, the number of Lotte's Japanese visitors has recently dropped to 20 percent. In 2012, 50 percent of its guests came from Japan, the spokeswoman said, adding the ratio will continue to head south.
''We used to cater to the Japanese, but due to tense diplomatic relations between Korea and Japan, and the yen's weakness against the won, the number has declined,'' she said. ''The status quo is unlikely to change any time soon, meaning that we need to make more efforts to attract Chinese tourists.''
To meet growing travel demand between the two nations, airlines will launch new routes or expand the number of flights on existing ones.
Korean Air will soon begin an Incheon to Hebei run and two other new China routes, while Asiana Airlines will operate one linking Incheon with Yancheng. The country's five low-cost carriers also plan to start nearly a dozen new routes to destinations in China.
Among Chinese carriers, China Southern Airlines will operate three daily flights between Incheon and Guangzhou.