(Yicai Global) May 9 -- Chinese tourists clutching long shopping lists have started to reappear in the duty-free outlets of South Korea's three biggest department stores despite just some Chinese travel agencies having resumed package tours to the country amid a year-long diplomatic rift between Beijing and Seoul.
Chinese customers accounted for 70 percent of the 45 percent jump in sales volume at Lotte Group's duty-free stores during China's three-day Labor Day holiday (April 29 to May 1), compared with a year earlier, South Korea's Aju Business Daily reported.
Beijing banned package tours to South Korea in March last year in reaction to Seoul's decision to deploy the US Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on land provided by Lotte Group. The number of Chinese visitors to South Korea plunged 60 percent between March and October last year, costing the country some USD6.8 billion, according to South Korea's National Assembly Budget Office. The ban was partially lifted in November.
South Korea overtook Britain in 2010 to become the world's biggest duty-free market, with Incheon International Airport ranking as the world's No. 1 in airport travel retail sales last year at USD2.1 billion.
Spending by Chinese tourists at Hyundai Department Store Co. branches surged 81 percent in the week of April 27 to May 4, with sales to Chinese shoppers soaring more than 2 1/2 times at its best-performing suburban outlet called Trade Center.
The number of Chinese visitors to the store rose 48 percent, with each shopper spending about CNY4,250 (USD667), or an average 82 percent more than last year, the report said. Chinese buying at the duty-free outlets of the third department store giant, Shinsegae Group, rose 95 percent, it added.
Signs of a rebound in visitor numbers were already seen in March, partly because of eased visa restrictions for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in February. South Korea granted a 15-day visa-free travel option to Chinese citizens from December 1, 2017, until the end of this March.
In March, the number of Chinese tourists rose 11.8 percent to 403,000. South Korea's tourism trade deficit with China that month stood at USD1.31 billion, the lowest since April 2017.
Editors: Emmi Laine, Mevlut Katik