As the pandemic winds down, Korea is restoring a visa-free entry system for tourists to Jeju and Yangyang next month.
Interior and safety minister Jeon Hae-cheol announced in a virus-response meeting Wednesday that the government will allow foreign travelers to come to Jeju and Yangyang without visas.
Under the visa-free program, tourists must stay on Jeju or, if they fly into Yangyang, are restricted to Gangwon and the Seoul metropolitan area.
“The government will take measures to revitalize the local economy in line with the return to normalcy,” Jeon said. “By streamlining the entry procedure, we hope to increase the number of tourists and revitalize the tourism industry.”
The visa-free program for Jeju allows foreigners to stay legally for 30 days without a visa. It was introduced in the southern resort island in April 2002 to attract foreign tourists.
When Covid-19 started spreading, the government suspended the program in Jeju from Feb. 4, 2020.
The program will allow all foreigners entering Jeju for tourism purposes to stay for 30 days without a visa. Travel outside Jeju is prohibited. Travelers from 24 countries are not qualified: Iran, Sudan, Syria, Macedonia, Cuba, Kosovo, Palestine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Ghana, Nigeria, Yemen, Egypt, Gambia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Nepal, Cameroon, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar.
Ten other countries suspended visa-free entry for Koreans during the pandemic, including Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and they are excluded from Korea’s visa-free program on the principle of reciprocity.
The visa-free entry system for Yangyang International Airport was started in January 2018 after the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and was also suspended in February 2020.
Also starting in June, tour groups of five or more people arriving from three Asian countries ― Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia ― via Yangyang International Airport will be allowed to travel to Gangwon and the Seoul metropolitan area for 15 days without a visa.
They must come on tours booked through travel agencies recognized by the Gangwon province. Each tour group must fly in and out of Korea on the same flight.
From Oct. 1, the program will be expanded to visitors from Mongolia.
With the receding of the pandemic, Korea has lifted border restrictions, including exempting fully vaccinated visitors from mandatory quarantines from March.
The tourism industry welcomed the government’s announcement.
“We hope Jeju tourism will be invigorated soon with [the expansion of] international flights along with the resumption of the visa-free entry system,” the Jeju Tourism Association wrote in a press release Wednesday.
Meanwhile, concerns are growing over new Omicron variants.
Health authorities Tuesday confirmed the country’s first case of BA.2.12.1, which is known to spread 20 percent faster than Stealth Omicron. New recombinant variants of the existing Omicron and Stealth Omicron were detected in the country, too.
“Overall, we are continuing to monitor virus mutations through diagnostic tests for inbound travelers,” Son Young-rae, senior epidemiological strategist at the Central Disaster Management Headquarters, said in a press briefing on Wednesday.
“Korea has achieved a fairly-high level of immunity, and is gradually normalizing its overseas entry policy to the previous level,” said Son. “We’re exchanging information with other countries around the world and we’re monitoring new virus variants.”
Authorities also announced a plan to encourage people to work from home to prevent a resurgence of Covid cases.
The government will give payments of up to 20 million won ($15,791) when a company purchases equipment or programs necessary for telecommuting.
Amid the continued slowdown of Covid-19 infections, Korea added 49,064 new virus cases on Wednesday, down by 27,732, or 36 percent, from the previous week.
BY SEO JI-EUN [email@example.com]