EDITORIAL: South Korea H1 2018

Beyond arrivals totals: Insights into Chinese outbound patterns to South Korea in H1 2018

by Christopher Ledsham, M.A.

Following the better-than-anticipated total of 80 million Chinese tourist arrivals seen around the world in H1 2018 – a year-on-year increase of 16.4% – COTRI raised its annual forecast for the whole of 2018 from an initial 154 million to 160 million Chinese border crossings. Should this total be achieved, it would represent a growth rate of 10.3% against 2017’s annual total of 145 million arrivals.

Within 2018’s robust double-digit growth rate is a wide range of trends and narratives that reveal different development rates in various destinations. A pillar among the total H1 2018 figure is the strong growth posted by the top-two global Chinese outbound destinations; Hong Kong SAR (23.7 million arrivals, +13.4% YoY) and Macau SAR (11.7 million arrivals, +13.3% YoY), contributing a net addition of 4.2 million arrivals between them. With the inclusion of Taiwan, the three Greater China destinations still account for a large share of the total Chinese outbound tourism market (45.9%), meaning that trend shifts in these destinations can have a notable effect on global patterns.

In addition to the two SARs, a number of other leading regional destinations including Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Japan all recorded strong double-digit growth rates in Chinese tourist arrivals in the first half of the year so far.

Another top-10 destination that warrants a closer look, however, is South Korea. As it begins to recover from the effects on the embargo on group tours attributed to its agreement to host the United States’ THAAD missile defence system, the country recorded double-digit year-on-year increases for the months of March to June inclusive, yet finished H1 2018 with 2.2 million Chinese arrivals, a total 3.7% lower than H1 2017. While the second quarter of the year (1.1 million arrivals) was an improvement against Q2 2017 (736,000), this was still far lower than the 2.1 million recorded in Q2 2016, before the introduction of the package tour ban.

Amid the shifts seen in Chinese outbound tourism to South Korea in recent years (FIT travel was not affected by the moratorium on package groups), a number of contagion effects can be observed in the demographics and travel characteristics of Chinese visitors to the country.

For example, coinciding with the introduction of the package ban in early 2017, there is a significant decrease in the previously-high percentage of female travellers to the country. While women had consisted of a significant majority of Chinese travellers to South Korea at the peak of its success in Q2 2016 (65% : 35%), this imbalance decreased significantly upon the barring of package groups one year later in Q2 2017 (53% : 47%); a factor that could be attributed to the country’s popularity as a retail haven for cosmetic products.

The ban also corresponded with a number of other changes that can offer an insight into the profile of absent package tourists. During the most heavily affected period (Q2 2017 to Q1 2018), shifting trends included notable decreases in the share of travellers with university education, visiting for leisure purposes, staying in accommodation rated two-star or lower, belonging to the 50+ age group and residing in non-first tier cities.

Accordingly, the return to strong year-on-year growth in Q2 2018 – where package tourists have climbed back to accounting for 30% of the total number of Chinese visits to South Korea – is coinciding with shifts towards patterns seen before the ban. The second quarter of the year saw female travellers climb back to 59% of the total, those with education up to secondary level return to a fraction of 70%, the ratio of two star or lower-ranked accommodation increase by 4% and the proportion of travellers from cities ranked as third tier or below increasing from 25% to 32%.


With Chinese outbound tourism statistics, it is key to look beyond numbers to gain a true understanding of trends and wider context. COTRI Analytics provides quarter-by-quarter breakdowns of a wide-range of demographic categories alongside executive-level contextual analysis for the 80 leading destinations in Chinese outbound tourism.

COTRI Intelligence

COTRI Intelligence is the indispensable source of weekly consulting, analysis, data and news for everybody seriously interested in the post-pandemic Chinese outbound tourism market and changing Chinese consumer preferences.  COTRI Intelligence is published by COTRI China Outbound Tourism Research Institute and edited by Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Georg Arlt FRGS FRAS. Regional partners and Content partners [...]

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