Flu, stronger won end flood of Japanese tourists


The number of Japanese tourists visiting Korea has been decreasing since April due to the recent scare over the (A)H1N1 influenza virus in Korea and the strengthening of the Korean currency against the yen.

According to Hana Tour, a travel agency, the number of Japanese tourists reached around 9,800 in March, but the number went down to around 8,800 in April and plummeted to 3,300 as of Friday.

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“You can hardly see Japanese customers these days,” said a 66-year-old woman, surnamed Lee, who sells sweet snacks in Myeong-dong. “In March, I was able to sell more than 30 sweet snacks a day to Japanese tourists in just two hours but I can barely sell 10 a day since the flu outbreak.”

Myeong-dong in downtown Seoul was unusually quiet last Friday afternoon. Most were Korean couples and although there were many tourists from Japan shopping here last month, now very few can be found.

Even though the influenza scare is abating rapidly in Korea, visitors from Japan are still very cautious. Choi Jong-tae, an executive from Hana Tour, said, “Japan has a strong sense of hygiene. Over 28,000 Japanese in Tokyo and Osaka have already canceled flights to Korea this month alone. At most, 10 people call every day to call off trips.”

The tourists from Japan spotted last Friday shopping in Myeong-dong wore surgical masks. “I really wanted to visit Korea to do some shopping even though my parents urged me not to come,” said a 23-year-old tourist from Japan, who was wearing a mask. Another Japanese visitor said most people in Japan are reluctant to travel abroad because of fears they could get infected.

The won’s appreciation against the yen has also discouraged Japanese tourists. In February, the Korean currency was at 1,546 against the yen but the rate came down to 1,288 by Friday.

The main branch of Lotte Department Store in Sogong-dong, central Seoul, saw sales shrink during Golden Week, a string of holidays in Japan that began on April 29 this year. The store had expected a sales increase.

During Golden Week, sales of luxury goods increased by 45 percent on-year, the department store reported. In the same period last year, sales of luxury goods rose 117 percent on-year.

“As the won has appreciated to 1,200, Korea has lost its attraction to Japanese shoppers,” said Park Woo-young, a sales manager in the main branch of Lotte Department Store. “In particular, sales of expensive luxury items have plunged.”