China's tourism authorities decided Tuesday to partially lift its bans on group tours to South Korea, sources said, as Seoul and Beijing move to repair bilateral relations badly frayed by the deployment of a U.S. defense system in South Korea.
At meetings earlier in the day, China's National Tourism Administration made a decision to allow offline tourist agencies in Beijing and Shandong Province to sell package tours to South Korea, the industry sources said.
"It means (China) will lift bans on Korean tours region-by-region in a step-by-step manner, having not lifted them on regions outside of Beijing and Shandong," a source said.
Tourists from these two regions accounted for some 30 percent of all Chinese nationals who visited South Korea last year, according to the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO).
Still, the KTO said that Beijing reportedly required the tour packages not to include visits to affiliates of Lotte Group, such as its hotels and duty-free shops.
The South Korean retail giant is one of the companies most affected by Beijing's economic retaliation due to its land-swap deal with the Seoul government to host the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
The country's fifth-largest conglomerate recently decided to withdraw its discount store business from the Chinese market, after 87 out of 99, or 87.9 percent, of its stores suspended operations in the neighboring country since early this year.
"It is difficult for us to make a hasty conclusion just based on today's reports," a Lotte official said. "For now, we'll have to wait and see the results of the upcoming Seoul-Beijing summit with expectations that circumstances will improve step by step afterwards."
While welcoming the decision, industry watchers said it will take a month or so for Chinese tourists to actually return to South Korea, as time is needed to prepare group tour programs.
"They need to make new tour packages and employees who had left the travel agencies should also come back," a KTO official said, expecting the situation to normalize by the first half of next year.
"The first group of Chinese tourists could arrive in mid-December at the earliest," another industry official based in Beijing said, adding some companies have been preparing in advance after the two countries showed signs of a thaw in their relations.
Some other industry officials expressed disappointment, saying it won't have much impact on the local businesses unless China lifts the ban on running chartered planes or cruise ship tours to Korea.
The latest decision by the Chinese authorities came after the two countries agreed on Oct. 31 to put their feud of more than a year over the deployment behind them.
South Korea has witnessed a sharp decline in the number of tourists after China prohibited its travel companies from selling Korea-bound tour programs in March. Chinese nationals accounted for nearly half of the 17 million foreigners that visited the country last year.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Noh Kyu-duk said in a press briefing that South Korea "is paying attention to the related news," and he called for the full recovery of tourism between the two countries.
"Human exchanges between South Korea and China are the basis for increasing friendship and the foundation for a sustained relationship. I expect bilateral human exchanges to recover fully and cooperative relations in other parts to also revive as soon as possible," the spokesman said.