Several years ago, the government of South Korea had plans to more than double the number of Chinese visitors. By 2020 it wanted to have 10 million Chinese coming to the country. One way of helping to achieve this target was to allow various new casino resort projects. In 2016, when there were 8 million Chinese visitors, it appeared that the government was well on the way to hitting the target. But, since then, events have intervened, and it looks almost certain the 2020 visitor numbers will fall well short.
In November 2016 Beijing hinted it would ban tourist groups from mainland China from visiting South Korea because of a dispute about the deployment of a US missile defence system by South Korea in response to threats from North Korea.
The ban really began to bite in March 2017 when year-on-year Chinese visitor numbers fell by 40% and continued to get worse throughout 2017. For the whole of 2016 there were 8.06 million Chinese visitors but in 2017 the number was only just more than half of that (4.16 million).
There has been a recovery in both 2018 (4.78 million) and 2019 (5.51 million; 11 months) but the totals are still far below 2016 levels.
The spread of the coronavirus in 2020 will hit this recovery too, with travel from China being restricted. The government stated on 2 February that South Korea would not permit entry to foreign nationals who have been in Hubei province, China in the previous fortnight. A suspension of visa schemes for Chinese tourists is also being considered.
Two of South Korea’s leading casino operators – Paradise and Grand Korea Leisure – have instigated their own bans specifically on Chinese tour groups.
The geo-political events of recent years demonstrate how quickly the situation can change and how the reliance on a narrow source of visitors can become a weakness.