The Winter Olympics kicked off in Pyeongchang this week, and there’s no doubt the world was watching… for a lot of different reasons. But, looking into the stands, there was a definite disparity. Relatively few Americans made the trip.
Travel experts and other prognosticators are blaming high travel costs, few hotels, and, of course, the less than cordial relationship Washington DC has with North Korea.
However, others are blaming the relative lack of “stuff to do” outside of attending Olympic events. Pyeongchang is not a large city, and it’s a two-hour train ride to get to Seoul. Travel agents hoped to be able to house tourists in Seoul and encourage them to commute to the games. That way, there would be plenty of hotels, and plenty to see and do in off times.
That option didn’t turn out to be a great one for many travel agents. The times involved just didn’t work out. Trains, security delays, long lines to get into events… taken together, this would be a lot of standing around for people, after long train rides.
So, how low was the turnout? Well, judging by flight reservations, there was only a 24 percent increase this year as compared to last year. Remember, this is the Olympics. There’s no way anyone is happy with 24 percent.
Does that mean the stands will be empty? Well, no. Koreans are showing up in droves, of course, and residents of Japan and China are coming out in big numbers as well. China is a huge win for Korea, because of the socio-economic clashes the two countries have been battling through in recent years. Until these Games, the Chinese had all but stopped traveling to South Korea, and these Olympics could signal a sea change.
However, Korea in general, and the Olympics in particular still seem to have an American problem. Americans travel well, and they bring big money when they come. Team USA generally does very well in most Olympics, so you have a happy, excited mass of tourists looking to spend their cash on what could be a once in a lifetime experience.
But you get none of that when they don’t show up. Which begs the question: what happened? Sure, the government of South Korea has a lot going on, but where is the tourism industry in trying to recruit American visitors? While there are certainly lingering tensions with the North, South Korea has been a longtime ally, and the Olympics is one of the safest international events to attend.
Whatever the reasons for the shortfall, it’s definitely a let-down and a missed opportunity. Is it a harbinger of things to come?