Can South Korea tourism weather rising political tension?

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Seoul's downtown cityscape.
Seoul's downtown cityscape. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Tension between North Korea and U.S.-backed South Korea has intensified, and one tour operator says that has affected American travel to Seoul.

But three other operators say that South Korea bookings remain strong.

South Korea had been on many tour operator lists of hot destinations for 2017, including G Adventures. But the destination has cooled for Americans.

"From a global perspective, our passenger bookings to South Korea are going strong, with 10% growth versus last year at this time. Among Americans, however, we are seeing a dip in sales that we hope will be short lived -- especially since the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang are coming up in seven short months. Fall will be a telltale time for us to assess the potential impact of political tensions on tourism in the Korean peninsula," said Ben Perlo, U.S. managing director for G Adventures, which offers a 10-day tour to South Korea.

Artisans of Leisure reports that its customers are staying the course.

"Actually, South Korea has been incredibly popular for us recently, and there has been no decline at all for South Korea tours or Asia tours in general thus far -- we continue to receive steady inquiries and bookings," said Ashley Isaacs Ganz, founder and CEO of Artisans of Leisure.

However, North Korea's test-launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday could change things.

"Since the situation has escalated quite significantly over the past few days, it may be too soon to tell, although thus far our travelers have not changed their plans or their interest in the region," Ganz said.

Cox & Kings COO Warren Chang said its Asia bookings are up 40% this year and that South Korea is popular.

"To date, the current situation with North Korea has not impacted tourism to South Korea or any other destinations within Asia," said Chang. "South Korea's popularity as a leisure destination is on the rise, and we do not expect interest to wane anytime soon. We are currently on pace to send a record number of travelers to the country."

Catherine Heald, co-founder and CEO of Remote Lands, said that South Korea is a popular destination not least because Korean Airlines is a popular airline for travel to Asia. Heald said that only one client has adjusted plans, having removed a South Korea tour from the itinerary and requesting a hotel reservation that could be canceled with 48 hours' notice.

"As it happened, everything was fine and they went to Korea and had no problems," said Heald.

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