Tourists from Southeast Asia and Japan are gradually taking up some of the slack after a Chinese boycott and ban on "zero-dollar" package tours left many of Korea's top shopping districts empty.
Some 1,154 employees of an Indonesian cosmetics retailer came to Korea last month on a bonus trip, followed last week by around 100 staff of a consumer products retailer from the same country.
One staffer at the company said, "Our staff strongly supported Korea as the destination of their incentive tour. They're interested in Korean pop culture, and economic ties between Korea and Indonesia are growing closer as well."
According to Sky Scanner, which compares the cost of traveling to different parts of the world, Seoul saw the highest growth among destinations searched by Indonesian travelers last year. Among travelers from the Philippines, Jeju Island and Seoul ranked first and third.
A staffer at the Korea Tourism Organization said, "If visa waivers and other measures make it easier to travel to Korea, the number of tourists from those countries will increase even more."
According to the KTO, around 565,000 Chinese tourists came to Korea in January, accounting for 46.3 percent of all foreign visitors, while tourists from Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia accounted for a quarter.
But the number of Southeast Asian tourists is rising remarkably. In January visitor numbers from Hong Kong grew 65 percent on-year, from Vietnam 49 percent and Malaysia 47 percent. Indonesian tourists also increased 23 percent and Japanese 13 percent.
Retailers are adapting quickly. The duty free shop at the posh Galleria Department Store in Gangnam recently signed a pact with two Muslim travel agencies and is planning a publicity blitz overseas next month. Four restaurants in the 63 Building in Yeouido have acquired halal licenses.
Lotte Department Store meanwhile aims to attract Japanese tourists by giving away gift vouchers and souvenirs to JCB credit card users. Ten "power bloggers" from Thailand are being invited to tour the new Lotte World shopping mall in southern Seoul.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism aims to attract more tourists from Southeast Asia, Taiwan and Hong Kong this year than previously targeted. Hwang Myoung-sun at the ministry said, "We're reallocating our advertising budget for Chinese tourists to attracting visitors from Southeast Asia and Japan instead, and we plan to bolster the tourism infrastructure for Muslim visitors."
Starting next month, Seoul city officials will install signposts in Indonesian, Malaysian, Thai and Vietnamese in the Itaewon shopping district, on top of the present signs in Korean, English, Chinese and Japanese.
Indonesian visitors tour Gyeongbok Palace in Seoul on Monday.