Hundreds of Chinese tourists gathered in front of Lotte Department Store in downtown Seoul on Sunday afternoon, each loaded with a bunch of shopping bags. Long lines formed in front of the lifts leading up to duty-free shops, while store attendants had a tough time organizing the huge crowds.
Duty-free shops downtown were filled with shoppers holding their Chinese passports in one hand.
"We doubled our number of Chinese interpreters from 20, but we still need more," a Lotte staffer said. "We expect twice the number of Chinese tourists next weekend."
The Korean tourism and retail industries look forward to booming sales to Chinese tourists. A record number of Chinese tourists are expected a during the country's national holidays, which last until Oct. 7.
The Korea Tourism Organization forecasts that some 150,000 Chinese will visit Korea during in that week, up around 60,000 compared to the same period last year.
Some 2.94 million Chinese tourists visited Korea from January to August of this year, already surpassing the 2.83 million Chinese tourists seen over the whole of last year.
And they are venturing beyond the usual shopping attractions, spreading beyond downtown Seoul to shop and go sightseeing and heading to premium outlets on the fringes of the capital.
A growing number of Chinese tourists are buying household goods and gifts at superstores that have until recently been the reserve of locals.
Thanks to visa-free entry, Chinese tourists are also flocking to the southern resort island of Jeju. Tourist attractions there are busy all year long, to the point that Chinese visitors now fuel Jeju's economy. Practically every restaurant on the island has a menu in Chinese, and shops find it essential to hire Chinese-speaking staff.
Chinese customers are driving up sales at superstores. Sales rose only 0.9 percent on-year at E-Mart's 148 stores nationwide this year, but the two E-Mart stores in Jeju frequented by Chinese tourists saw sales rise 5.6 percent.
The Lotte Mart at Seoul Station, which is popular among tourists, saw sales from Chinese customers rise 56.2 percent this year and 119.5 percent during the month of February, which included the Chinese Lunar New Year holidays.
"A rise in the number of direct flights and cruise liners that link Jeju Island and China has led to a surge in the number of Chinese tourists," said Lee Won-hee, the manager of one of the E-Mart stores on Jeju Island. "Recently we've seen a lot of Chinese tourists buy gifts like kimchi, dried seaweed and rubber gloves, so we increased stocks of those products by more than 30 percent."
A luxury fashion outlet on the outskirts of Seoul is also seeing sales rise thanks to Chinese tourists. Paju Premium Outlets, operated by department store chain Shinsegae, saw 136,000 tourists until August, and 45,200 of them were Chinese -- a 27.7 percent increase compared to last year.
The number of Chinese tourists visiting Yeoju Premium Outlets rose from 6,400 last year to 10,100.