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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2008

S. Korean tourists wither with won

Staff writer

The sharp appreciation of the yen and the dramatic fall of South Korea's won has had a big impact on tourism on both sides of the Sea of Japan.

News photo
Still above water: South Korean tourists take a river cruise in Yanagawa, Fukuoka Prefecture, in November. The plunge of the South Korean won is dissuading South Korean tourists from visiting Japan. KYODO PHOTO

South Korea has proved a popular destination for thrifty Japanese travelers who prefer spending the yearend holidays closer to home, but tourist spots in Japan have been seeing dwindling numbers of foreign visitors, particularly South Koreans.

Japan has been staging national campaigns to attract more overseas tourists, and the South Koreans have been the industry's top customer in recent years.

But over the last four months, the won's exchange rate with the yen has taken its worst drop since the Asian financial crisis in 1997, when it fell to nearly 1,500 per ¥100.

In early December, the won sank to nearly 1,600 — an unprecedented plunge that more than halved its value from a year ago, crippling the buying power of Korean consumers.

"We've seen seasonal reservations by tourists from South Korea drop by more than 50 percent," said Akira Tsukahara of Alts Bandai, a ski resort in Fukushima Prefecture.

The resort said it has been actively soliciting South Korean tourists for the past three to four years, only to see their numbers go downhill over the past few months. "It's not massive damage, but it definitely isn't looking too good," Tsukahara said.

Tsuyoshi Sawa of the Noboribetsu Tourist Association in Hokkaido said the "onsen" (hot spring) mecca, popular with Southeast Asian tourists, is also seeing a drop in visitors from South Korea, and to a lesser extent Taiwan.

The visitors who have shown up made their reservations in October, before the won plummeted, and further drops are expected in January, he said.

Traffic from South Korean tourists visiting via jet ferry between Busan and Kyushu has also dropped off in recent months, according to Hospitable, a Fukuoka-based market research company.

Ippei Matsukiyo, president of the company, said most passengers on the voyages are young, individual travelers attracted by the relatively cheap fare. Many come for shopping and to visit the onsen.

According to the most recent statistics from the Japan National Tourist Organization, the number of South Korean visitors to Japan in November was down by half compared with the same month last year.

In contrast, the number of Japanese travelers visiting South Korea rose 3.1 percent in October, according to Korea Tourism Organization statistics.

Yoshiaki Homma, head of the Japan Tourism Agency, acknowledged the severity of the situation at recent press conference and said he was in discussions with related industries on future promotional campaigns.

An official of the tourism ministry said it plans to strengthen its public relations activities toward working South Korean women in their 30s, a target demographic, as well as tying up with South Korean women's magazines to promote tourist spots in Japan.

Matsukiyo of Hospitable said, however, that interest in Japan among South Koreans is still quite high, and counseled the nation's retail and tourism industries to think of ways to capitalize on this enthusiasm to beat the recession.

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