S.Korea considers early easing of COVID visa curbs on travellers from China -Yonhap

South Korea calls China's visa suspension 'deeply regrettable'
A group of Chinese tourists head to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing centre upon their arrival at the Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, January 12, 2023. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

SEOUL, Jan 31 (Reuters) - South Korea's prime minister suggested on Tuesday that COVID-19 visa curbs on travellers from China could be lifted earlier than scheduled if infections eased in the latter, as the travel and tourism industries hope for a rebound in visitor numbers.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said Seoul could consider lifting the limit on short-term visas for such travellers before the end of February if China's tally of COVID infections proved manageable, the Yonhap news agency said.

"If (the situation) is endurable given the PCR COVID-19 test results, the lifting (of restrictions) could be considered earlier," Han said.

His comment comes as the tourism and aviation sectors have been hit by the decisions of both countries to suspend the issue of short-term visas.

China plans to require all passengers on direct flights from South Korea to undergo a PCR test upon arrival, starting from Feb. 1, the South Korean embassy in Beijing said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said, "It is regrettable that individual countries persist on implementing discriminatory entry restrictions against China, to which China is firmly opposed and has reason to take reciprocal measures against."

She was responding to a query about China mandating COVID test for inbound travellers from South Korea.

South Korea's foreign ministry said its quarantine measures were based on scientific grounds for people's protection.

"There should never be any restrictions based on factors other than quarantine, and we are also communicating with the Chinese side as necessary," the ministry added in the transcript of a news briefing.

The curbs have hit air traffic links, one airline official said.

"We hope travel restrictions between the two countries are eased soon to allow more routes and flights," said Kim Ah-hyun, the deputy general manager of Korean Air.

Before COVID-19, China used to account for 20% to 25% of Korean Air’s passenger and cargo businesses, he added.

Duty-free shops have also been hit hard.

"Chinese peddlers used to buy duty-free goods and supply them to China," said a spokesperson for travel retailer Lotte Duty Free.

"But given the suspension of short-term visa issuance and travel restrictions, they can’t travel easily and our revenue will likely take a hit."

South Korea has suspended short-term visas for Chinese visitors since early January, after China abruptly dropped its stringent "zero-COVID" policy, leading to a wave of infections.

Seoul's move prompted Beijing to do the same for visas in South Korea.

Reporting by Hyunsu Yim, Soo-hyang Choi in Seoul, Joe Cash in Beijing; Additional reporting by Heekyong Yang; Editing by Josh Smith and Clarence

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