BUSAN, South Korea, March 19 (UPI) -- South Korea's fight against coronavirus is slowing, but fear over infection is being replaced with economic woes for the nation's highly touristed port city.
The southern city of Busan -- which received nearly 2.4 million visitors in 2017 -- is struggling to keep its local economy afloat as hotels, beachside cafes and other tourist-related businesses see a drop in visitors. Busan had 107 cases of COVID-19 by Thursday, which accounts for less than 2 percent of South Korea's 8,565 known cases.
That trend is also true for the entire country. Nationwide, South Korea suffered a $928 million tourism deficit in January alone as international news headlines started reporting about the novel coronavirus in Asia. The virus seriously cut down on the number of foreign visitors overall, but especially from China, where an estimated 81,000 people have been infected and at least 3,245 died.
"Coronavirus has already had a big impact on South Korea's tourism revenue -- the worst impact we've ever had. It's a really serious matter," Jeong Ran-soo, an adjunct professor at Hanyang University's Division of Tourism Science, told UPI. "Some countries are restricting their people from traveling to South Korea, and domestically, people are not traveling as much."
The struggle is particularly noticeable for Busan, known for its blue water beaches, ancient temples and picturesque nightscapes, shown in the 2018 Hollywood film Black Panther. The owner of a beachside hotel, who requested anonymity, told UPI the situation is becoming desperate.
"No one is walking down the street, and I am so worried about my employees and how they're going to make a living. We had to send them home temporarily" because of a loss of income, she said. "We cannot even pay our rent if panic over the virus continues, and there are lots of hotels in Busan that have closed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. How can a hotel survive without visitors?"
Meanwhile, the manager at Cafe de Paris, a coffee shop serving ice desserts and warm brews over a picturesque ocean view, told UPI that his revenue has dropped 80 to 90 percent. He estimates tourism to his beachside street has gone down around 70 percent.
"When the first case [of COVID-19] was reported on Feb. 21, the number of visitors dramatically decreased," he said. "Almost every small-business cafe has suffered from the outbreak ... I had to ask my part-timers and employees to stay at home because I can't afford to pay them. I'm working alone."
Jeong said South Korea tourism was suffering before a major cluster of coronavirus cases emerged. But the situation got much worse with Patient 31, a middle-age follower of a fringe religion who passed the virus on to other congregants, causing a massive outbreak. Most of the cases from the Shincheonji Church of Jesus are concentrated in the southeastern city of Daegu (nearly 73 percent of the country's total cases are concentrated there), but Jeong believes the rapid rise in cases nevertheless scared tourists away.
"Tourism revenue was already on a decline before Patient 31 became infected, but after the number of coronavirus cases skyrocketed, the impact has become much worse," Jeong said. "Those who are working or running businesses in the tourism sector there are having a difficult time, and we could see a bankruptcy crisis."
Lee Sang-ho, a professor at Busan National University's Department of Tourism and Convention, agrees that the economic outlook is grim in the short term. Both the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the MERS outbreak in 2015 brought large declines in tourism, he said.
"My country suffered a great deal of damage during these times," Lee said. "At this point, people are getting used to isolating themselves ... Since people have stayed in their homes for so long, how can they imagine going on a trip?"
Even so, Lee remains somewhat optimistic.
"Recovery also tends to be fast," he said.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in has already released aid packages for small businesses negatively impacted by the virus, but many still might not get the support they need.
According to Jeong, South Korea's Tourism Promotion Act allows support for certain designated businesses such as hotels, recreational resorts and casinos, but leaves out many who are also being impacted by the drop in visitors. Cafes and restaurants, for example, might not be eligible for help under the act.
"Some people in the tourism industry are not eligible for support ... There is no option for them but to close temporarily and reduce their labor costs," he said.
"The tourism industry is no doubt driven by small businesses," Lee added. "It's necessary to give incentives like tax benefits and funding support for small businesses in the region and to help them normalize. That way, tourism demand will recover, and the local economy will recover."
Mitch S. Shin contributed to this report.