UPDATE : 2018.11.19 MON 18:09
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Concerns over low-quality group tours resurface as Chinese visitors increase

Repeated government efforts to prevent cheap, low-quality package tours to South Korea by Chinese tourists are being questioned again as the number of travelers from the neighboring country increases, industry watchers said Thursday.

The tally for June from the Korea Tourism Organization showed the volume of Chinese visitors to Korea shooting up 49 percent on-year after Beijing began to ease travel restrictions sparked by a bilateral diplomatic row.

The nature of Chinese group tours to South Korea has been a subject of scrutiny and criticism because of their undercutting prices and mandatory shopping visits to make up for such low prices.

According to industry watchers, a four-day package tour to Korea in China commonly costs between 300,000 won (US$268) to 400,000 won. A special discount package can go as low as 200,000 won. The price barely covers the cost of plane tickets.

Travel agencies make up for the cost of meals and transportation by inserting numerous visits to duty-free shops and other shopping centers, as many as four stops during the stay, in exchange for commissions from the shops. In some cases, the agencies receive a set amount of commission each month or every year from shopping centers, restaurants and accommodation facilities. The practice may keep the travelers coming, but the quality of the tours and the country's image are seriously sidelined, watchers say.

"The reason why Chinese group tourists come to South Korea is mostly because of the cheap price," an industry official said.

A large number of travel agencies in South Korea work with those in China, who often demand cost cuts, according to the watchers.

Government actions to prevent such low-quality tours often are futile because a travel company usually operates multiple agencies. Punishing one of them will not hurt the company, which has other agencies that can replace it, they say.

South Korea and China have an agreement to allow only state-certified travel agencies to be able to host package tours. An application period for the certification in China drew more than 100 travel agencies as of the end of June, speaking to the stiff competition in the market that makes it hard for government actions to have a wanted effect.

While the local travel industry is aware of the problems, the prevalent view is that there is no practical solution other than travelers finding out for themselves what they are getting.

"Travel agencies inform the tourists how many shopping visits there will be, and the tourists make their choices using the information," an official at the Korean Association of Travel Agents said. "There are different ways of doing business in different industries. There are probably consumers who want cheaper products."

The official denied that the current problem has to do with the way the travel industry works.

"If the consumers want what's cheap, then they need to look closely at the itinerary," he said. "The discussion should not be about whether it's right to make up for the low cost with commissions. Bad quality package tours will disappear naturally if the consumers keep making the right choices."

Another official talked about the reality of the business.

"Government restrictions may be necessary to change the structure of the travel industry, but for agencies who need to draw in customers, they are not welcome," he said. "There have been past inspections by the government, but they all were ineffective." (yonhap)

Hillary Kang  edt@koreapost.com

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