Japanese still make up the biggest group of foreign visitors in Korea. Last year, 3.33 million Japanese arrived here by air flight, compared to 2.2 million Chinese. But due to the weak yen and growing spending power in China, the trend will likely come to an end soon.
Chinese already outpaced Japanese in the number of air travelers who arrived in Korea in February and April, causing airlines here to increase flights to and from China.
◆ 2-Fold Rise in 4 Years
Although the number of Japanese visitors continues to increase, they accounted for only 34.1 percent of all foreign visitors to Korea in 2012, down from 42.5 percent in 2009. By contrast, the number of Chinese travelers more than doubled from 970,000 to 2.2 million.
Chinese visitors are expected to outpace their Japanese counterparts this year. In the first four months of this year, a total of 870,000 Japanese came to Korea, down 23.5 percent from a year earlier. The figure for Chinese is slightly lower at 868,000 but up 54 percent on-year.
In terms of air passengers to Jeju in April, Chinese outnumbered Japanese nearly 10 times at 84,180 as against 8,946.
◆ More Flights on Chinese Routes
To meet increasing demand, the nation’s airlines are significantly expanding services on Chinese routes. Korean Air will launch four flights per week next month from Busan to Nanjing and provide irregular services between Busan and Dayong, and between Jeju and Guangzhou and Chengdu.
By April, Asiana Airlines had increased services on Chinese routes by 13 percent compared to last year and now operates on 31 routes to and from 22 Chinese cities. It launched charter services between Incheon and Yancheng in February, and between Incheon and Lijang in April.
Services on existing routes between Incheon and four Chinese cities (Huangshan, Chengdu, Changsha and Dalian) also grew to three to ten flights a week. Since late last month, passengers also can use the airline to fly between Incheon and Xuzhou.
Low-cost carriers are hurrying to catch up. Jeju Air carried a total of 60,000 passengers in the first five months of this year on irregular flights to 11 Chinese cities. Currently, it flies between Incheon and Shijiazhuang or Weihai, between Jeju and Fuzhou or Nanchang, and between Busan and Zhangjiajie.
Eastar Jet, which provided 711 flights on Chinese routes last year, began operating regular flights between Cheongju and Shenyang in January this year, and between Jeju and Kunming in May. It also offers irregular services on 13 routes from Incheon or Jeju to all over China.
Jin Air has also jumped on the bandwagon with irregular flights between Jeju and Yanji or Changsha.
"Due to the weak yen, the number of Japanese visitors rises at a slower pace while Chinese visitors prefer Korea to Japan amid territorial disputes between Beijing and Tokyo," a researcher at E-Trade Securities said. "Airlines here are likely to focus on Chinese routes for the time being."