SEOUL, Korea – Fewer Japanese are going to South Korea amid heightened international tensions over talk of war by North Korea.
The development accelerates a trend that has been plaguing the South Korean tourism industry for months, as the number of Japanese tourists has dropped sharply due to a territorial dispute and the yen’s steep depreciation since late last year.
A cosmetics store in Seoul’s Myeongdong shopping district that would normally be thronged with Japanese tourists was noticeably lacking foreign visitors amid a torrent of recent media reports on North Korea’s blustery rhetoric, including a pre-emptive nuclear strike.
Two women in their 50s from Tokyo said they were prepared in the event of an emergency.
“I already researched where the Japanese Embassy is located,” said one woman. “We will rush to the compound if something happens.”
According to the Korea Tourism Organization, the number of Japanese travelers to South Korea from January to August last year exceeded the figure for the same period a year earlier.
But the figures for the months starting from September declined sharply.
Since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took power in Japan last December, Japanese arrivals to South Korea have fallen by about 20 percent, according to the Korea Tourism Organization.
In particular, the tourism organization reported a year-on-year decline of more than 30 percent in visits by Japanese women in their 50s or older, the group most widely credited for underpinning a Korean cultural boom in Japan.
Since the South Korean television drama “Winter Sonata,” starring Bae Yong-joon, was first broadcast in Japan in April 2003, women in this age group became avid fans of Korean dramas and pop culture, creating an influx of South Korean entertainers, such as actor Lee Byung-hun, and K-pop bands.
The impact of thinning Japanese tourist numbers has impacted all areas of the South Korean tourism industry.
An official at a leading hotel patronized by large numbers of Japanese put the drop at about 30 percent. A large duty-free shopping complex gave a similar estimate.
Many people attribute the decrease to the souring of relations between Tokyo and Seoul after President Lee Myung-bak visited the Takeshima islets in the Sea of Japan in August, the first time a South Korean president has done so.
The outcrops, called Dokdo in Korean, are administered by South Korea and also claimed by Japan.
A sharp drop in the value of the yen since late last year has also compounded the problem. Abe ordered that the market be flooded with cash to lead to a weak yen to help Japan’s export-oriented economy.
The exchange rate for 10,000 won is now about 900 yen, nearly 200 yen lower compared with six months ago.
Tourism officials here are now most concerned about North Korea’s future actions and prospects for bilateral ties between Japan and South Korea.
“We may be able to deal with the yen’s depreciation by cutting the price of commodities,” an official at the Korea Tourism Organization said. “But there is nothing we can do about the Japan-South Korea relations and North Korea.”
An official with the Ministry of Strategy and Finance in Seoul also expressed concern that a plunge in Japanese arrivals could deal an additional blow to South Korea’s economic woes.
“With no path to the nation’s economic recovery in sight, the risks imposed by the North would have a detrimental impact on our economy if they are not resolved fairly quickly,” the official said.