South Korea’s tourism industry is in damage control mode following the outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Disease (MERS) that has caused thousands of international visitors to change or cancel planned visits. Rather than minimizing the threat, Seoul officials are emphasizing efforts being taken to protect the health of tourists who visit the country.
What Is MERS?
- First identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012, Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) is a viral respiratory disease.
- Originates from a virus that can cause diseases ranging from the common cold to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)
- Symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath; may advance to pneumonia, gastrointestinal symptoms, diarrhea
- Approximately 36 percent of reported MERS patients die
- Most human cases of MERS have been attributed to human-to-human infections, but the virus does not seem to pass easily from person to person unless there is close contact.
- Source: WHO
The MERS outbreak in South Korea has scared away international tourists by the thousands. Kim Chulmin with the Ministry of Tourism said if the drop off continues through the summer, the industry could lose over $900 million in expected revenue. “So let’s say we have a reduction of 20 percent of tourists from June, July and August, that would be 820,000 people not coming to Korea,” he said.
While President Park Geun-hye’s government was initially criticized for being slow to respond to the threat, it has since taken strong measures, closing off some hospitals where MERS had spread, quarantining thousands of people who might have been exposed to the virus, and increasing health monitoring at airports, train stations and bus terminals.
The number of new infections is now decreasing, but it is unclear when the economy will recover.
Low attendance at public events
Attendance at public events and retail sales are still down but these domestic industries will likely rebound once the public health threat is over.
As for tourism, officials are trying to reassure international visitors that South Korea is safe. They emphasize that the virus has been contained to specific hospitals and is not in areas where tourists usually go.
The Ministry of Tourism is also providing hand sanitizers at tourist attractions and has instituted a hotline in four languages to deal with any MERS issues.
And the government will offer free traveler insurance that will cover all medical costs if a visitor contracts MERS.
“The South Korean Government is creating an atmosphere where tourists can travel without anxiety,” said Kim.
While these measures may have some impact, it will likely take time for apprehension over the outbreak to fade before the tourism industry can fully recover.
VOA Seoul Producer Youmi Kim contributed to this report.