Beijing travel agencies yesterday said they could no longer arrange trips to South Korea, following reports that China had ordered a clampdown to punish Seoul over its plans to host a US missile-defense system.
South Korea’s fifth-largest company, Lotte, is facing an escalating backlash in China after providing land for the military facility, which Beijing fears will undermine its own defense capabilities.
So far, Beijing has refrained from taking any public retaliatory steps against South Korea.
However, tour operators contacted by reporters confirmed the suspension of trips to South Korea, after Yonhap news agency on Thursday reported that China’s tourism administration had issued a verbal directive on the issue.
“Please consider going to other countries. Trips to South Korea are suspended due to policy and safety factors,” said a staffer at CYTS (中國青年旅行社) online service, one of China’s biggest travel companies.
Staff at two other leading travel-service providers said the same.
“You can’t register for a trip to South Korea, it’s suspended. I don’t know why, nor when it will be resumed,” an employee at BTG Travel (北京神舟國際旅行社) said.
Chinese travelers are a major and growing source of tourism revenue for South Korea.
Yonhap’s report said the ban was likely to be expanded to travel firms in other cities, citing “industry sources” in China.
Allies South Korea and the US last year agreed to install the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to counter growing nuclear and missile threats by North Korea.
The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said THAAD “jeopardizes” regional security and has warned of unspecified consequences against Seoul and Washington.
The South Korean Ministry of National Defense on Tuesday signed a land swap deal with retail giant Lotte Group for the stationing of the system and said it would push for its deployment this year.
Lotte has already suffered business setbacks and boycott threats in China over the plan.
The China National Tourism Administration did not respond to a request for comment.
However, it posted travel tips that urged Chinese tourists to carefully consider “the risks of outbound travel” when considering trips to South Korea.
Asked about the reported travel halt, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) dismissed the question during a daily briefing.
“Instead of chasing shadows and working on speculation, it’s better to focus on the concrete issue so as to avoid further damage to bilateral relations,” he said.
On Wednesday, the Chinese producer of one of the country’s most popular snacks withdrew its goods from Lotte Marts across China, saying it would “never cooperate” with the company.
A range of other actions have been taken, including a consumer boycott in Jilin Province, where protesters last weekend unfurled a banner at a Lotte Mart store saying “Lotte supports THAAD, get out of China immediately.”
Last month, Lotte was forced to halt construction of a US$2.6 billion theme-park project in northeastern China after authorities suddenly found safety problems, and Lotte Web sites have this week been downed by apparent cyberattacks.