China suspends short-term visas for South Koreans over Covid travel curbs

A Chinese flagReuters file photo

China has suspended the issuing of short-term visas to South Koreans in response to Seoul's imposition of travel restrictions on Chinese travellers over Covid concerns, Beijing's embassy said Tuesday.

"Chinese embassies and consulates in Korea will suspend the issuance of short-term visas for Korean citizens," the embassy in Seoul said, adding the measures would be "adjusted again in line with South Korea's removal of the discriminatory entry restrictions on China."

Last month, Seoul imposed a wave of restrictions on travellers from China, including visa restrictions, testing requirements and some flight limits, citing a surge in Covid-19 infections.

Seoul has also capped flights from China, and travellers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau have to test negative before travelling and are tested again on arrival.

Those testing positive are required to quarantine for a week, authorities have said.

China currently issues no tourist visas and requires a negative Covid test for all arrivals.

One Chinese national who tested positive on arriving in Seoul refused to quarantine and fled, sparking a two-day manhunt that dominated South Korean headlines.

Police eventually found the Chinese national -- who was not identified, but described as a medical tourist -- who will be questioned this week over the infraction, local media reported.

According to official figures, 2,224 Chinese nationals on short-term visas have landed in South Korea since January 2, with 17.5 percent testing positive on arrival.

South Korea has also restricted the issuing of short-term visas to Chinese nationals, excluding public officials, diplomats and those with crucial humanitarian and business purposes, until the end of January.

Other restrictions include scaling back the number of flights from China and requiring all flights from the country to land at South Korea's main Incheon International Airport.

South Korea's southernmost Jeju Island, which has its own international airport and separate visa entry regime, was a popular tourist destination for Chinese arrivals before the pandemic.

Seoul is "inevitably strengthening some anti-epidemic measures to prevent the spread of the virus in our country due to the worsening Covid-19 situation in China," Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said last month in announcing the measures.

China's hospitals have been overwhelmed by an explosion in cases after Beijing began unwinding hardline controls that had torpedoed the economy and sparked nationwide protests.

For both 2019 and 2020, tourists from China accounted for the largest proportion of all foreign tourists visiting South Korea, making up 34.4 percent and 27.2 percent, respectively, according to Seoul's official data.

But the number of Chinese tourists dropped significantly last year -- from 6.02 million in 2019 to 200,000 for January to November 2022 -- making up only 7.5 percent of all tourists from overseas, South Korea's culture ministry told AFP.