By Daniel Meesak, publisher of Jing Travel
After deciding to crack down on travel by its citizens to South Korea from March 15, China is now expanding those restrictions to include North Korea as well, with Chinese tour operators suspending sales of tours in the isolated country. Chinese tourists have long made up the largest group of visitors to North Korea, whose tourism officials have been quoted as saying that 80% of visitors to their nation come from “neighboring countries”. Another estimate has Chinese visitors at 90% of all foreign tourists in North Korea.
North Korea is aiming to grow visitor numbers from 100,000 in 2015 to 2 million by 2020 – a highly unlikely prospect but one that Pyongyang hopes will mitigate effects of sanctions against the country.
State-owned tour operator China International Travel Service and major online travel agencies such as Ctrip and Tuniu swiftly suspended all travel products related to North Korea. Flag carrier Air China also suspended its flights between Beijing and Pyongyang.
These moves were made only days after US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a press briefing that the suspensions were entirely “market-based”, with no relation to decisions made by the government.
North Korean airline Air Koryo also struggled with delays of its flights between Beijing and Pyongyang, with poor weather quoted as the official reason – despite clear skies in both cities.
It remains unclear whether the decision to limit Chinese travel was made on the state level, or if it was simply, as Chinese tour operators claim, a result of suddenly plunging demand amid rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. However, the unfolding of events strongly resembles that involving mainland Chinese travel to Taiwan after the election in 2016 that saw independence-leaning candidate Tsai Ing-wen win the island’s presidency. At that time, mainland tour operators swiftly limited the number of tours to Taiwan available, with Beijing citing lackluster demand as a result of the Taiwanese election as the reason for plunging demand.
According to a South China Morning Post report late last year, Chinese demand for travel to North Korea was booming.
The sudden drop in Chinese tourism in North Korea will have few ramifications for any tourism stakeholders outside those two countries. In contrast, the South Korea travel ban is straining retailers, hotels, and other tourism businesses on the southern half of the peninsula.
However, fewer Chinese tourists on both halves of the Korean Peninsula may also have negative consequences for the security situation. Before the ban, South Korea hosted more than 8 million Chinese visitors in 2016, which was believed to have been an important deterrent against North Korean missile strikes in the South – since such an event would likely put nationals of Pyongyang’s most important ally at risk. Similarly, the presence of Chinese nationals on North Korean soil acts as a deterrent against military action against that country.
So far, China has made no statements that indicate when either travel ban will be lifted. However, the upcoming May 9 presidential election in South Korea could prove crucial to the future of Chinese tourism there, depending on whether a pro-THAAD or an anti-THAAD candidate wins the election.
For Chinese tourism in North Korea, the situation is even murkier, as the drop in tourism is not officially tied to any particular event or decision, as opposed to South Korea and the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missiles there.
This article was originally published on Jing Travel.