A group of Chinese tourists arrive at Incheon International airport on Aug. 2, 2010, following Korea’s easing of visa rules on visitors from the mainland. But the recent tightening of security against foreign visitors ahead of the G20 summit in November is feared to dampen the nation’s efforts to attract a record number of foreign tourists this year. / Korea Times file
By Park Si-soo
Tightened immigration security ahead of the upcoming G20 summit in Seoul has cast a pall over Korea’s ongoing campaign to attract foreign travelers.
The Seoul government kicked off the “2010-2012 Visit Korea” campaign in November with the goal of attracting 10 million tourists each year. Visa regulations for Asian travelers have been drastically eased and Seoul is even in talks with some countries to waive visas to reach that goal.
But critics say tougher immigration check-ups ahead of the high-security meeting could frustrate foreign travelers and, in the long run, compromise the country’s efforts to build itself up as a favorite travel destination in Asia.
The latest case of the much worried side effect occurred last Friday at Cheongju International Airport in North Chungcheong Province. A group of soccer trainees from Thailand were denied entry into Korea for what immigration authorities called an “unclear”purpose of visit.
“It’s rare to see group tourists denied entry altogether,” a critic said. The 24-member team arrived at the airport 100 kilometers south of Seoul along with dozens of other travelers from the Southeast Asian country aboard a Korean Air flight at 8 a.m., officials said.
The purpose of their visit stipulated in an immigration document was to receive intensive soccer training at a stadium in Gyeonggi Province.
The document was genuine and their luggage clearly packed for their purpose of visit here — soccer uniforms and other protective gear. Officials interviewed all the members one by one, which took more than seven hours.
After all that, the immigration officials decided to deny their entry for some suspicious answers during questioning. Detailed information about the questioning was not available.
“Some of them knew nothing about soccer,” an immigration officer said. They were sent back to their home country hours later.
Officials admitted the denial was partially attributable to tightened immigration check-ups in recent months for the much-publicized meeting, adding the decision was made on the grounds that it was suspected they would overstay their visas.
Some critics said the core ground of the suspicion may have been a result of somewhat irrelevant statistics of unregistered foreigners in Korea — Thais ranked third in the number of illegal aliens in South Korea, after Chinese and Mongolians, according to the Korea Immigration Service.
“Given the statistics, it’s true that many Thai people visit Korea on tourist visas and overstay here to make money. But it should not become grounds to judge other visitors with justifiable purposes,” a critic said.
The critic also blamed the authorities for applying a dual attitude in promoting travel to Korea. “China is infamous for overstaying. Ironically, however, the government recently drastically eased visa rules for them,” he said.
From Aug. 1 the Ministry of Justice eased visa regulations considerably for Chinese tourists.
The ministry has expanded the scope of those who are eligible for multiple-entry visas to the employees of the top 500 Chinese companies, teachers, retirees with a pension income, those with various professional licenses and graduates of prestigious universities.
They will be able to freely enter Korea during the period specified by the visa. Seok Dong-hyeon, commissioner of the Korea Immigration Service, said the measure was a response to Japan’s aggressive promotions to appeal to Chinese tourists.
The ministry estimates the number of China’s middle class to be some 50 million — slightly more than Korea’s entire population of 49.7 million as of 2009.
강화된 출입국 심사에 울상인 관광업계
G-20 정상회담을 앞두고 강화된 입국심사로 인해 외국인 관광객 유치에 힘 쏟고 있는 관광업계가 피해를 보고 있다.
지난해 정부는 2010년부터 2012년까지를 “한국방문의 해”로 선포하고 매년 천만명 외국인 관광객 유치를 달성하기 위해 노력하고 있다. 이를 위해 정부는 최근 관광비자 발급규정을 완화하였고 일부 국가와는 비자면제를 검토하고 있다.
하지만 일부에서는 강화된 입국심사로 인해 장기적으로 한국 방문객 숫자가 줄어들 수도 있을 것이라는 우려의 목소리도 나오고 있다.