The 31 Koreans who became victims of a suicide bombing in Egypt on Sunday were on a pilgrimage that traversed a hotspot of terror attacks.
The Foreign Ministry raised its travel advisory for the Sinai Peninsula in 2013 following a series of terrorist attacks in the region, aiming to prevent Koreans from traveling there except in emergencies. Even Egyptians avoid the impoverished tribal region.
Travel industry sources estimate around 50,000 Koreans embark on pilgrimages to the Holy Land annually. Most of them travel in groups, which raises the risk of being targeted for terror attacks, experts warn.
Korean Christians usually travel for 10 days to a month visiting holy sites in Egypt, Israel and Jordan. Sites in Egypt are a must, since they form the backdrop of the journey Moses took as he led the Israelites out of captivity.
The problem is that travel agents here rarely warn visitors of the risks they face in that part of the world. Travel agencies here that market package tours to Christian holy sites advertise only the rich history of the region.
More than 100 travel agencies offer tours to holy sites in Egypt, and some specialize in pilgrimages. The travel agency that took the 31 church members from North Chungcheong Province is one of them.
One travel agent, who has sold package tours to holy sites for the last 15 years, said, "Pilgrimages really took off in the early 1990s but slowed down during the Asian financial crisis. But since 2000, tens of thousands of people head off on pilgrimages each year."
The fervor of pilgrims has not waned despite of repeated attacks against Koreans in Muslim countries. In 2004, Kim Sun-il was beheaded by terrorists in Iraq, while 23 evangelical missionaries on a foolhardy mission to Afghanistan were kidnapped and two of them ended up dead.
But tour industry sources say Korean tourists were not shaken since Iraq and Afghanistan are off the beaten track. In February 2012, three Korean pilgrims were kidnapped by armed terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula but released 30 hours later.
The latest terror attack has prompted scores of churches in Korea to cancel or change their pilgrimage plans. Another tour industry source said, "This is the first time that Korean pilgrims have been killed, so the impact appears be huge."
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has called on Koreans traveling in the Sinai Peninsula to leave the area, while urging others to avoid the region.