Chinese tourists outnumbered Japanese visitors to Korea for the first time last year. Chinese tour groups multiplied dramatically thanks to the explosive growth of the Chinese economy in the 2000s, while Japanese traveler numbers were affected by the economic slump, the weakening yen and chilly relations between Seoul and Tokyo.
Some 3.92 million Chinese visited South Korea last year not counting airline and cruise ship crews, up 43.6 percent from 2.73 million the previous year, according to the Justice Ministry on Tuesday. They accounted for 36.7 percent or more than one-third of all foreign visitors.
But only 2.71 million Japanese visited during the same period, down 22.4 percent from 3.49 million on-year.
As recently as 2004, Korea saw just 470,000 Chinese visitors, third after Japanese (2.42 million) and American visitors (570,000). But their number crossed the 1 million mark in 2008 and the 2 million mark just three years later. It is expected to exceed the 4 million mark next year.
The ministry attributed the dramatic rise in the number of Chinese visitors chiefly to a visa-free policy for transit tourists, simplified immigration for cruise tourists, more multiple and electronic visas, and simplified visa issuance overseas.
Overall, 10.67 million foreigners visited Korea last year, up 5.4 percent from the previous year. Tourists took up the largest proportion with 82.9 percent or 8.86 million, followed by visitors with work visas at 4.3 percent or 450,000 and overseas Koreans at 2.6 percent or 280,000.
The number of all in- and outbound travelers including Koreans stood at 54.96 million, up 9.2 percent on-year and an all-time high.
Some 1.22 million foreigners now live in the country.