S. Korea's largest cruise ship terminal opens amid lingering concerns about lack of interest

Lim Chang-won Reporter Posted : 2019-04-26 11:25 Updated : 2019-04-29 11:08
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[Courtesy of Incheon Port Authoirity]

SEOUL -- With much hope to attract more foreign tourists, South Korea opened its largest cruise ship terminal in Songdo, an international business district built on reclaimed land in the western port city of Incheon. It is capable of accommodating the world's largest cruise ship with a capacity of 225,000 tons. 

A colorful opening ceremony has been arranged along the terminal's 430-meter-long quay to celebrate the start of its service on Friday, followed by a light show, fireworks and an electronic dance music party. The first client on Friday is the 114,000-ton Italy-registered cruise ship, Costa Serena, carrying 2,800 passengers and 1,100 crew members for a six-day journey between South Korea and Japan.

The cruise terminal is the product of joint efforts by the Ministry of Ocean and Fisheries and Incheon Port Authority (IPA) that began in 2011 to attract foreign tourists mainly from China. Not far away from the cruise terminal, a separate passenger terminal for regular car ferry services between China and South Korea will open in June.

The blueprint for the two terminals was drawn before 2017 when South Korea's tourism industry was hit by a travel ban imposed by China in retaliation for the deployment of an American missile shield. Seoul and Beijing agreed to normalize relations under an agreement in October 2017, but Chinse tourists still shun South Korea.

As a backup project in Songdo, IPA has proposed the development of Golden Harbor to house hotels, condominiums, a luxury resort, a shopping mall, a water park and convention centers, but it has not been in place due to weak interest from domestic and foreign investors.

South Korea operates four cruise terminals, including one in the southeastern port city of Busan, one in Sokcho and two on the southern resort island of Jeju. The operation of cruise terminals has not been so successful.

Industry data showed the number of cruise ships which visited Incheon was down from 62 in 2016 to 17 in 2017 and 10 in 2018, while the total number of foreign visitors aboard cruise ships across South Korea fell sharply from 2.25 million to 505,000 in 2017 and 217,000 in 2018.

The terminal in Sokcho on the east coast near the border with North Korea was for cruise ships which once carried tourists to North Korea's scenic Mount Kumgang resort. It has been almost abandoned since cross-border tours to the resort were suspended in 2008 when a tourist was shot dead by a North Korean guard.

The terminals in Jeju, which used to be a favored destination by Chinese tourists, have few visitors, and the success of the Songdo terminal is also in doubt, although the number of car ferry passengers between Incheon and China rose 809,000 in 2018 from 600,000 in 2017. At its heydays in 2016, some 920,000 people used ferry services through Incheon.

IPA has envisaged a plausible tour program that would allow foreign tourists to make cross-border trips aboard cruisers, but it depends on progress in inter-Korean rapprochement.

Since South and North Korean leaders signed a dramatic peace accord at their summit in April last year, the two sides have kickstarted various talks on resuming stalled exchanges and cooperation, but progress has been slow due to a dispute mainly between Washington and Pyongyang over how to achieve denuclearization.

Songdo, a waterfront area in Incheon west of Seoul, is located in a vast free economic zone where various incentives such as tax reductions, estate support, and subsidies are given. The district now houses about 80 foreign companies, but development has been slow mainly due to a lukewarm response from foreign investors.

Despite an unfinished debate over its economic feasibility, Songdo still dreams of becoming the "city of water" like Amsterdam by connecting artificial canals and a lake in a square shape surrounding it. The project is aimed at building an ecological marine site and preventing flood damage by preserving water.

Construction was to begin in 2016, but the project has been delayed due to environmental, financial and other concerns. Residents in Incheon's old town have opposed it, citing the depletion of city coffer. An association of civic groups in Incheon has urged city authorities to seek the balanced development of the entire port city, insisting Songdo has already sucked a large amount of taxpayers' money.