China plans to loosen restrictions on package tour operators ferrying mainland tourists to destinations in South Korea, potentially offering a badly needed boost to the peninsula’s foreigners-only casino market.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that China had decided to permit travel agencies to resume booking package tours to South Korean cities from airports in Beijing and Shandong. Other Chinese cities are expected to be added to this list in short order.
China imposed a blanket ban on group tours to South Korea after the latter country’s former government approved the deployment of additional US anti-missile missile systems last year. Some regions of South Korea, like the casino-heavy Jeju island, had relied on China for over 80% of their inbound tourists, but by this summer Jeju’s volume of Chinese tourists had fallen nearly 90%, resulting in similar declines in casino gaming revenue.
The election of a new South Korean government in May saw the scrapping of further missile deployment plans and other diplomatic efforts to resolve the standoff between the two countries. And while Tuesday’s news will be welcomed in South Korea, it isn’t entirely without hitches.
For the time being, China is only permitting over-the-counter package tour sales, meaning no online sales, charter flights or cruises. Also, package tours can’t involve stops at any businesses operated by South Korean conglomerate Lotte Group, which owned the land on which the additional US missiles were to be deployed.
While the news gave a bump to the share price of South Korean casino operator Paradise Co Ltd, its rival Grand Korea Leisure (GKL) may not see the same benefits. GKL’s Seven Luck Casino brand includes a Busan venue that operates out of the Lotte Group’s Busan Lotte Hotel.
It’s unclear just how Tuesday’s news fits with the China National Tourism Administration’s recent announcement that package tour operators were prohibited from organizing trips that included stops at international gambling venues. As always, parsing the Chinese government’s intentions from its public statements remains something of a gamble.