By Kim Seung-yeon
SEOUL, Feb. 21 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is facing challenges as a shopping and entertainment mecca for foreign tourists, as growing discontent from short-stay visitors is feared to deal a blow to the tourism industry amid rising diplomatic friction with China, industry officials said Tuesday.
It is not easy these days in Korea to spot foreigners in families or groups wandering about the busy alleys of Seoul's Myeongdong and Dongdaemun shopping areas, chattering in Chinese or English.
In fact, these tourists have virtually become "deep pockets" for such commercial districts, filled with stores struggling to retain profits in the face of faltering domestic consumption.
But not many foreign tourists returned home with good memories of Korea, as data showed that strong complaints about tourism services were lodged with the related government agency.
According to tourist complaints compiled by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) in 2015, 26.5 percent were related to shopping. Most claims were about haggling, accounting for 22.3 percent, followed by delays with consignment, erroneous bills or refund problems and faulty products.
More than half of the unhappy comments were made by Chinese travelers, with the rest filed by Japanese and others, KTO said.
The dissatisfaction also pointed out shop assistants' unfriendly attitudes, such as the staff refusing to bring an unopened item instead of the one on display, or insulting the customer because he or she didn't buy the product after looking at it.
One tourist reported that the shop owner gave a complimentary pack of omija tea, or five-flavor berry tea, as a token of gratitude, but its expiry date had passed more than four years prior.
In regards to refunds, a spokesperson at a Seoul-based duty-free shop, asking not to be named, said, "There may be some inconvenience with refunds because the process takes time to deal with the (refund) request and remit the payment to the Chinese bank, which incurs a high fee."
But what tourists found most infuriating was being swindled, with over 30 percent of the complaints blaming taxis for outrageous treatment.
A Filipino tourist who used a taxi from Incheon's Songdo Park to Incheon International Airport, reported that the taxi driver asked for 40,000 won (US$35) for a distance that should have cost half that amount, without turning on the taxi meter.
In another case, an American traveler, who was forced to pay 78,000 won for a taxi ride from the airport in Incheon to a Seoul hotel, managed to get a refund after finding out that the taxi driver ripped him off about 40 percent more than the initial fare.
A visitor from Hong Kong was asked to pay 30,000 won for a bowl of fried noodles at a restaurant, only to find out later that it was only 3,000 won.
Industry watchers voiced concerns that swift measures need to be taken to fix such problems and improve service, given that the business environment could hit a rough patch amid heightening diplomatic tension with China over Seoul's decision to install a U.S. missile defense system, known as THAAD.
China's state-run media published an editorial criticizing Lotte Group, South Korea's top retail conglomerate, for intending to hand over a golf club located in a rural city where the government picked to station the THAAD battery.
While the THAAD issue may not be an imminent matter that undermines the tourism industry, the government said it understands it "can be an element which could affect the tourist inflow," given that Chinese tourist have accounted for the largest portion of foreign visitors.
The KTO said it plans to shift focus to individual tourists rather than those coming in as groups, since more Chinese travelers are coming to Seoul alone.
The growth of Chinese tourists visiting Korea marked a sharp fall in the latter half of last year, tumbling to a mere 1.8-percent on-year increase in November, from a 70.2 percent on-year gain in August, according to KTO data.
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