Seoul will offer VIP privilege cards to rich Chinese visitors from March with a view to luring more big spenders.
To qualify for the VIP cards, Chinese people must have bought goods worth more than US$30,000 in Korea over the past five years; deposited more than W50 million (US$1=W1,083) in the Korean bank where they apply for the card; or be a high-ranking government official or celebrity.
The benefits include a five-year multiple-entry visa, use of fast-track automated immigration counters, discounts in department stores or duty-free shops, and assistance in shopping malls and translation services in tourist resorts.
Applications will be screened by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Korea Tourism Organization and banks.
An embassy official speculated that about 20 million Chinese could qualify for the cards.
Some critics accuse Seoul of discrimination on the basis of wealth or position.
But a Chinese businessman said, "What's the problem with giving preferential treatment to tourists who want to spend a lot of money? No Chinese would mind."
"Many rich Chinese prefer Hong Kong for shopping because they find it annoying to apply for visas whenever they want to go to Korea," he added. "The VIP cards will help attract more rich Chinese tourists."
In 2013, 3.92 million Chinese tourists visited Korea, outnumbering their Japanese counterparts (2.71 million) for the first time. This means that one in every three foreign visitors was Chinese.
In 2012, each Chinese tourist spent W2.29 million in Korea, far more than the average of W1.62 million among all foreign tourists.