Japanese local governments request Korean carriers to keep operations to Japan

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A banner that reads “Boycott Japan, we do not travel (to Japan), we do not purchase (Japanese goods)” is installed on a street in central Seoul, Tuesday, in protest against Japan’s removal of Korea from the “whitelist” of trusted trading partners last week. However, Jung-gu Office, which set up the banners, scrapped them later in the day following criticism that it was improper for a public office to create anti-Japan sentiment. / Yonhap

By Kim Hyun-bin

Japanese local governments are on high alert as the growing anti-Japan sentiment in Korea following Japan’s economic retaliation against Korean court rulings on wartime forced labor has resulted in a drastic reduction of Koreans travelling to the neighboring country.

Since the boycott movement kicked off in early July, representatives from Japanese local governments have been visiting Korean carriers, requesting they maintain the operation of existing routes to their cities.

Their visit has come as Koreans have been a major tourist group in recent years in some small Japanese cities in provinces after many Korean low-cost carriers (LCCs) opened routes. According to 2017 Japanese government statistics some local cities including Yamaguchi and Kitakyushu heavily relied on Korean travelers, who accounted for nearly 90 percent of foreigners visiting the regions.

According to the airline industry, it is not uncommon for Japanese local government officials to seek cooperation with Korean airlines to boost sales. But this time they have been offering additional promotions to cope with the drop in sales in recent weeks.

Since Japan began trade restrictions to Korea early July and Koreans began to boycott travel to Japan, Jeju Air, the country’s largest LCC, suspended three Japanese routes. It now operates on 19 routes between Korea and Japan, a cut from 22.

Jeju Air’s booking rate for Japan for August fell to 70 percent, a drop from over 80 percent compared to the same period last year.

“They came to ask if we can increase flights or launch new routes,” a Jeju Air official said.

The Japanese officials also met up with other LCCs including T’way, Eastar Jet, Air Busan and Air Seoul since July.

For Air Seoul, over 60 percent of its operations are to Japan and over 50 percent of the company’s total sales come from the island country, while T’way makes over 30 percent of sales from Japan.

A street in Tsushima Island, Japan, which was once flooded with Korean travelers, is empty, Sunday, following the “Boycott Japan” movement in Korea. Yonhap

However, even with the Japanese local governments’ desperate measures to appeal to the Korean market, many LCCs are planning to halt operations on additional routes or reduce the number of flights to the island country, as the booking rates for September for Japanese destinations are down 30 to 50 percent compare to the same period last year.

Eastar Jet announced Tuesday it will suspend operations on six routes to Japan starting Sept. 18 to Oct. 2 ― routes from Incheon to Sapporo, Okinawa, Kagoshima and Ibaraki, as well as those from Cheongju to Sapporo and Osaka.

“We are worried the boycott will continue to have a negative impact on our September sales. But what concerns us more is the possibility the boycott movement could be prolonged,” an official from Eastar Jet said.

T’way Air is also monitoring the situation and plans to conduct another evaluation for the winter season plan and make additional changes to its routes accordingly.

Last month, T’way suspended operations between Muan and Oita and plans to halt operations on Daegu-Kumamoto and Busan-Saga routes in September.

Korean Air, the country’s full-service carrier, is also scheduled to operate smaller aircrafts than before on Incheon-Sapporo, Oska, Fukuoka and Nagoya routes as early as this month.

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