Strength­en­ing bi­lat­eral ties across the Yel­low Sea

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE - By LUHAOT­ING

Ifelt spoiled dur­ing a trip to South Korea in mid-April com­pared to the last time I was in the penin­su­lar na­tion a decade ago. I was greeted by Chi­nese-speak­ing front desk staff atmy ho­tel in down­town Seoul.

When I used the phone in the lobby, the auto re­ply was first in Korean, then in Chi­nese.

But maybe most sur­pris­ingly, I even found a lit­tle sign, writ­ten in Chi­nese, inmy bath­room, telling me “Seoul tap wa­ter is safe to drink. Please turn the tap to the right and wait for a fewsec­onds be­fore you drink”.

I have never seen such de­tailed in­struc­tions of­fered in Chi­nese, in any ho­tel abroad.

Ten years ago, I re­mem­ber I could only com­mu­ni­cate in English at the ho­tel I stayed in. Coin­ci­den­tally the two ho­tels are lo­cated just across a street from each other, next to the cen­tral plaza in front of the Seoul Ci­tyHall.

The sheer vol­ume of Chi­nese tourists in Seoul, how­ever, did not sur­prise me at all.

It is no longer a nov­elty to see crowds of Chi­nese abroad, speak­ing all kinds of lo­cal di­alects, at ma­jor tourist at­trac­tions.

But how Kore­ans now pam­per Chi­nese tourists, by speak­ing our mother tongue, did grabmy at­ten­tion.

Clearly fu­elling this warmth is the in­creas­ingly im­por­tant role be­ing played by Chi­nese trav­el­ers in the South Korean tourism in­dus­try.

China over­took Ja­pan to be­come South Korea’s largest source of in­bound trav­el­ers in 2013. Last year more than 6.2 mil­lion Chi­nese vis­ited the coun­try, a 42 per­cent surge on the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to the Korea Tourism Or­ga­ni­za­tion.

In­creas­ingly fas­ci­nated by Korean pop cul­ture, and helped by the ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the ren­minbi, Chi­nese tourists ac­counted for a re­sound­ing 44 per­cent of the coun­try’s to­tal in­bound trav­el­ers last year.

That num­ber is ex­pected to reach 10 mil­lion in five years, said Oki Kang, ex­ec­u­tive vice-pres­i­dent for the Tourism In­dus­try un­der the KTO, at an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence or­ga­nized by the Korean Jour­nal­ists’ As­so­ci­a­tion.

Chi­nese shop­pers are big spenders in Seoul. They con­trib­uted 70 per­cent of sales, for in­stance, at Lotte Duty Free Shop in the cap­i­tal’s busyMyeong­dong com­mer­cial dis­trict last year.

The travel pref­er­ences of Chi­nese tourists are also be­com­ing more am­bi­tious. Un­like group tourists, whose travel itin­er­ar­ies usu­ally con­sti­tute lit­tle more than shop­ping and sight­see­ing, in­di­vid­ual trav­el­ers are hun­gry for new­ex­pe­ri­ences, such as ski­ing in win­ter. Dubbed “high-qual­ity trav­el­ers” by the KTO, this kind of vis­i­tor usu­ally stays longer, and spends more.

The bustling Korean tourism in­dus­try is the most vis­i­ble part of what has be­come an ever-grow­ing eco­nomic in­ter­de­pen­dence be­tween the two coun­tries.

China is now South Korea’s big­gest trad­ing part­ner, and South Korea is China’s fourth-largest, af­ter the Euro­pean Union, US and Ja­pan. Trade be­tween the two reached more than $290 bil­lion last year, com­pared with $112 bil­lion a decade ago.

Bei­jing and Seoul are ex­pected to of­fi­cially sign a bi­lat­eral free trade agree­ment in the first half of this year, and in an­tic­i­pa­tion of that, en­ter­prises from both sides have ac­cel­er­ated their in­vest­ment on each other’s home turf.

China has also be­come South Korea’s third-largest source of for­eign in­vest­ment, af­ter the US and Ja­pan. Chi­nese in­vest­ment in South Korea surged 148 per­cent to $1.19 bil­lion last year, while in­vest­ment across the Yel­low Sea in the other di­rec­tion grew29.8 per­cent to $3.97 bil­lion.

The mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship be­tween China and South Korea en­tered this “hon­ey­moon” pe­riod af­ter Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye fleshed out a se­ries of strate­gic part­ner­ships over the past two years.

This fur­ther devel­op­ment of eco­nomic ties serves both coun­tries’ piv­otal in­ter­ests, and is be­ing warmly wel­comed by the peo­ples of both coun­tries.

In a public opin­ion poll car­ried out by Dong-A Ilbo in­March, more than half of South Kore­ans picked China as their most im­por­tant coun­try in terms of for­eign eco­nomic ties.

On se­cu­rity, how­ever, the US still mat­ters the most to South Kore­ans, ac­cord­ing to the poll, which in­ter­viewed 1,000 read­ers.

I failed to find a sim­i­lar sur­vey about how Chi­nese peo­ple view South Korea, but fig­ures from Ctrip, China’s largest on­line travel agency, con­firm that South Korea has re­placed Thai­land as the most popular out­bound tourist des­ti­na­tion for Chi­nese trav­el­ers.

More than 100,000 Chi­nese trav­el­ers, 20 per­cent more than last year, are head­ing to South Korea over the com­ing three-day La­bor Day hol­i­day, KTO said. Con­tact the writer at luhaot­ing@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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