Olympics: It's ready but will they come? South Korea counts down to
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[November 01, 2017]
By Jane Chung and Hyunjoo Jin
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) -
Workers in the South Korean resort town of Pyeongchang are making
final preparations for the Winter Olympics, remaking roads,
renovating buildings and preparing menus in English, Chinese and
Japanese, a burst of activity that masks a big problem.
With less than 100 days before the Games begin, barely a third of
the tickets have been sold.
"It's a bummer," said 55-year-old motel owner Oh Young-whyan, who
spent about $360,000 refurbishing his 15-room property close to the
Oh, other hotel owners and local authorities say political tensions
with North Korea and China have chilled foreign interest in the
Games, which open on Feb. 9 just 80 km (50 miles) from the world's
most heavily fortified border.
Tourists are reluctant to commit to the event as North Korea's
leader, Kim Jong Un, and U.S. President Donald Trump trade insults
and threats of mutual destruction after the North conducted its
sixth and most powerful nuclear test in September.
Ticket sales are weak, with 341,327 sold, or 32 percent of the total
on offer, as of Oct. 24 - much weaker than during the run-up to the
last winter Games in Sochi, Russia. More than 70 percent of Sochi's
tickets were sold before the opening ceremony.
Pyeongchang Organising Committee Secretary General Yeo Hyung-koo
says there is still time to catch up. The Olympics torch relay,
which began in Korea on Wednesday, will ignite domestic interest, he
Local business are also putting on a brave face, hoping for a late
surge in interest, especially from Chinese tourists after Beijing
this week set aside a dispute with Seoul over an anti-missile
"We still have 100 days so I'm not that worried," said Oh, owner of
the Daekyanryung-sanbang motel, where Olympics banners were hung
inside and out.
NO PASSENGERS, EMPTY AIRPORT
Nearby, a bus terminal which undertook a $447,000 makeover in
preparation for the Olympics was largely empty, with only one
Chinese couple and a handful of locals seen waiting for buses.
Buses bound for Seoul in the past used to have as many as 38 foreign
passengers, half of them Chinese, but nowadays some buses have no
passengers, said Kim Moo-gyu, the owner of the terminal.
Before this week's diplomatic breakthrough, Chinese authorities had
unofficially imposed a ban on tour groups visiting South Korea since
March and stopped charter flights.
The number of Chinese visitors, which accounted for nearly half of
all foreign tourists into South Korea last year, slumped 61 percent
from March to September from the same period last year, official
Yangyang International Airport, the only international airport near
Pyengchang, was quiet, with flight routes from Shanghai and seven
other Chinese cities all cut since last November.
'LOTS OF LOSSES'
Min Byong-kwan, the chief executive of Phoenix Hotels & Resorts, is
counting on a pick-up. The ski resort spent tens of millions of
dollars building six Olympics courses and renovating some 1,000
rooms to accommodate foreign officials during the Olympics.
"We are making a lot of investments - and booking a lot of losses -
through the Olympics," Min said.
"It is regrettable that the Olympics boom is falling short of our
expectations so far." But he added: "I expect the boom to experience
exponential growth for the remaining 100 days."
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A man looks at the Olympic Rings at the Gyeongpodae beach in
Gangneung, South Korea, October 31, 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Pyeongchang, carved out of pine-covered slopes in northeast Gangwon
province, is being festooned with banners reading "Passion
Connected", a slogan reflecting the hosts' aim to dissolve tensions
with a show of sporting goodwill.
Organizers hope athletes from North Korea, still technically at war
with the South, will take part and share the mountain with American
and Chinese athletes. The North has yet to confirm if it will send a
Han Do-sam, who sells seafood at the popular Sokcho fish market,
said the improvement in ties between Beijing and Seoul was a good
"We hope ... it will help more foreign tourists come here when they
visit for the Olympics," Han said.
UNLIKELY TO MEET TARGET
South Korea planned to use the Olympics to introduce foreign tourism
to Gangwon province. Provincial authorities set an ambitious goal of
attracting 5 million visitors next year, up from an original
expectation of around 3 million this year.
But Gangwon governor Choi Moon-Soon said he doubted the 2018 target
would be met.
"So far we have seen declines in visits from China and Japan, which
are directly affected by the North's nuclear issue," Choi told
Reuters. "Southeastern Asian group tourists are showing signs of
cancelling trips as well."
Song Sung-sup, director of Goodmorning Travel, which specializes in
Chinese tourism, was also glum, despite Tuesday's surprise detente
between South Korea and China.
"Unless China lifts a ban on charter flights to any local airport in
South Korea, I'm a bit skeptical whether signs of easing are clear
at the moment," said Song, who saw sales drop by up to 20 percent
due to the frozen ties with China.
Just two years ago, the outlook looked bright.
A Chinese company had committed to build a $431 million luxury
resort - China Dream City - an hour's drive from Pyeongchang.
Pitched at Chinese tourists, it was to provide accommodation during
the Games. But construction has still not begun.
Governor Choi said he was also worried about delays to a $450
million project to build a Legoland in the city of Chuncheon, about
145 km (90 miles) from the Games venue.
Legoland operator Merlin Entertainments said last month the resort's
completion date was delayed by three years to 2020 to get final
partner funding and "for a lot of Korean twists and turns", without
Merlin CEO Nick Varney joked last month it might help ease tensions,
and brighten up prospects for the Games, if Legoland were to promise
North Korea's leader an annual pass to the theme park.
"Hopefully that will cheer him up a little bit."
(Additional reporting by Haejin Choi and Yuna Park in Seoul, Karolos
Grohmann, Writing by Mark Bendeich, Editing by Soyoung Kim and
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