S Korea tourism hit hard by ferry accident

S Korea tourism hit hard by ferry accident

Local festivals, school trips and ferry tours have been cancelled or delayed after the deadly ferry sinking off the southern coast last week, bringing the tourism industry to a grinding halt.

Provincial governments are now scrapping plans to start spring festivals in May. Jeolla Province announced it has cancelled the popular Hampyeong Butterfly Festival, scheduled to kick off on May 2. Other major spring festivals such as the Icheon Ceramics Festival, originally scheduled to start on Friday, and Boseong Green Tea Festival, originally set for May 2-6, have been postponed at the last minute.

"We chose to postpone the festival in a time of mourning. We pray for the safe return of the missing passengers and mourn those who lost their lives," the Boseong Green Tea Festival committee said in a statement.

Tour companies in Seoul have seen more than half of their group tour reservations cancelled as of April 18, according to the Korea Tourism Association. A local news report said more than 7,000 airline seats were cancelled after the Education Ministry banned school trips for the first half of the year.

"Not just school trips, but also tour bookings are being made in very limited numbers," said an official of Hana Tour. "The ferry trips are affected the most. We don't see any new reservations for ferry trips." Tour agencies operate ferry trips to popular vacation islands such as Ullengdo, Baengnyeongdo and Hongdo islands.

A string of cancellations is feared to put tour companies and the related agencies in financial trouble. Small companies may have trouble making loan payments and paying monthly salaries.

A charter bus company, Happy Limousine, fears they may not be able to pay back loans for 20 buses they own starting this month.

"April and May are the peak season for spring travel. But after the ferry sinking, almost all reservations have been cancelled. Expected damage includes not being able to pay our monthly 50 million won auto loan for the 20 buses we have," said Park Yoon-ho, publicity director of Happy Limousine. "We are also refunding deposits to our customers because they are not making cancellations for personal reasons but due to the tragic incident."

Normally, Happy Limousine operates all its buses between April and May, but after the ferry tragedy, Park said, the company has only four days of bus operations booked so far.

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism has scaled down its ambitious travel promotion plan. A day before the ferry sinking, it announced it would designate the first and second weeks of May "Travel Week" and encourage citizens to take vacations to the provinces in Korea. More than 1,000 restaurants, travel agencies and hotels vowed to participate in the travel week by offering discounts. More than 107 travel programs were scheduled for the event.

"We asked organisations and provincial governments in charge of tour programs to voluntarily cancel the events," said Lee Jin-sik, director of the tourism policy division of the ministry.

Industry insiders are cautious in predicting when the local tourism industry will recover.

"We have to monitor the local tourism market closely to come up with measures to overcome the slump and determine when to resume tour promotions," Lee said.

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