Workers labour in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on October 31 2017. Picture: REUTERS
Workers labour in Pyeongchang, South Korea, on October 31 2017. Picture: REUTERS

Pyeongchang — 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 fewer than 100 days before the Games begin, barely a third of the tickets have been sold.

"It’s a bummer," said motel owner Oh Young-whyan, who spent about $360,000 refurbishing his 15-room property close to the Olympics Plaza.

Oh, other hotel owners and local authorities say political tension with North Korea and China have chilled foreign interest in the Games, which open on February 9 just 80km 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 US 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% of the total on offer, as of October 24 — much weaker than during the run-up to the last winter Games in Sochi, Russia. More than 70% 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 said.

Local business are also putting on a brave face, hoping for a late surge in interest, especially from Chinese tourists after Beijing set aside a dispute with Seoul this week over an antimissile system.

"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 in 2016, slumped 61% from March to September from the same period in 2016, official data show.

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.

Min Byong-kwan, the CEO 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 about 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."

Pyeongchang, carved out of pine-covered slopes in northeast Gangwon province, is being festooned with banners reading "passion connected", a slogan reflecting the host’s aim to dissolve tension with a show of sporting goodwill.

Organisers 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 team.

Han Do-sam, who sells seafood at the popular Sokcho fish market, said the improvement in ties between Beijing and Seoul was a good start.

"We hope … it will help more foreign tourists come here when they visit for the Olympics," Han said.

South Korea planned to use the Olympics to introduce foreign tourism to Gangwon province. Provincial authorities set an ambitious goal of attracting five-million visitors in 2018, up from an original expectation of about three-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 said. "Southeastern Asian group tourists are showing signs of cancelling trips as well."

Song Sung-sup, director of Goodmorning Travel, which specialises 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 sceptical whether signs of easing are clear at the moment," said Song, who saw sales drop by up to 20% due to the frozen ties with China.

Just two years ago, the outlook looked bright. A Chinese company had committed to build a $431m 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 $450m project to build a Legoland in the city of Chuncheon, 145km from the Games venue.

Legoland operator Merlin Entertainments said in October that 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 elaborating.

In October, Merlin CEO Nick Varney joked that it might help ease tension 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."


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