South Korea’s Shops Struggle To Keep Up With Chinese Tourist Influx

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Travelers pass through the duty-free shops in Incheon Airport on January 30, 2014 in Incheon, South Korea. (Shutterstock)

Chinese travelers’ love for low-tax shopping means their numbers are surging in South Korea, but a new survey finds that the country’s retailers need to keep up by providing Chinese-speaking staff.

According to new statistics released by the Korean Tourism Organization, Chinese arrivals to South Korea grew by 53 percent in March to 423,768 and 44 percent in the first quarter of 2014 to 1,046,771. In addition, they continued their ongoing ascent over previously dominant Japanese tourists, which fell in number by 14.5 percent year-on-year in the first quarter, and made up only 21.3 percent of total visitors during the same time period—compared to 44.9 percent for Chinese travelers.

Chinese tourists have been pouring into South Korea in growing numbers over the past several years thanks to comparatively low prices on imported goods and easier access to visas thanks to new South Korean government policies. As a result, they are a major source of revenue for duty-free shops—comprising around 30 percent of all South Korean duty-free spending—and vastly outspend Japanese tourists when they shop.

However, South Korean retailers are lagging when it comes to meeting the needs of this key customer group. A new survey by the Korea Chamber of Commerce and Industry finds that 60 percent of Chinese visitors said the language barrier was the biggest difficulty in shopping in South Korea. When the number of Japanese tourists was previously higher, shopping areas in major tourist spots added Japanese-speaking staff, but have not kept up with the rapid growth of Chinese tourists, which tripled in number in five years.

The survey also found that some areas are better than others when it comes to impressing Chinese tourists, which said that Seoul’s Myeong-dong market was their favorite place to shop.

 

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Industry Sectors, Travel