Visa regulation pits Jeju islanders against justice ministry
Locals call for visa-free Jeju to attract more foreign tourists, but justice ministry stands firm on introduction of electronic travel authorization
By Lee Yeon-woo
The scenic southern resort island of Jeju used to be called "Samdado" or an island that has plenty of three things _ wind, stone and women.
But nowadays they are not the only things the island is endowed with.
With its breathtaking scenery, picturesque beaches and volcanic landscape, the island is crowded with tourists almost all year round. Pale sands, blue seas, swaying palm trees, steep seaside cliffs, and many more beautiful attractions lure tourists to the island, making it a hub of the tourism industry. Before the coronavirus pandemic, an average of 1.4 million travelers, both Koreans and foreign tourists, visited the island annually.
After years of COVID-19-driven lockdowns, foreign tourists came back. But the islanders are not happy about the expected tourism boom.
People who are involved in the tourism industry on the island have begun to voice worries after the Ministry of Justice announced the introduction of the electronic travel authorization, also known as K-ETA, on the island.
If implemented as planned, the visa-waiver program, which has been in place since 2002 and allowed foreign tourists to travel the island for up to 30 days without a visa, will be automatically lifted.
Jeju locals are worried that the introduction of the ETA will negatively impact inbound tourism to the island.
"In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic started, nearly 1.72 million travelers visited this island and 810,000 of them arrived here on the visa-waiver program, accounting for 47.1 percent," Kim Jong-hoon, an executive of the Jeju Tourism Association, told The Korea Times. "This being said nearly half of foreigners arrived on Jeju visa free. Therefore, the planned introduction of the ETA will inevitably discourage foreigners from considering Jeju as a possible tourism destination."
While announcing the plan to introduce the K-ETA to curb illegal immigrants, the justice ministry didn't specify from when it will be implemented on the island. The ministry decided to tighten border control as some foreigners have taken advantage of the island's visa-free program to enter the mainland illegally. Jeju's visa-free entry also enticed potential asylum-seekers as the nation saw the arrivals of some 600 Yemenis as asylum-seekers within the first five months of 2018, which triggered nationwide debate over Islamophobia as some people spread baseless rumors about the Yemenis' motives.
The locals, particularly those who are working in the tourism sector, are feeling pressured by the measure as they are worried about the possible fallout on inbound tourism from abroad which has just begun to return to life after years of pandemic-driven suspension.
Relying heavily on tourism to support the local economy, Jeju government is on the same page as those who are involved in the tourism sector. On Jeju, tourism accounts for nearly 70 percent of the island's industries.
The local government has set out to take action. It requested the justice ministry to withhold the service in a meeting held on Friday. Jeju Immigration Service, JTA, Jeju Tourism Organization (JTO), and other relevant institutions also attended the meeting.
The justice ministry stood firm on its stance that it would introduce the electronic travel authorization.
Officials from the ministry insisted that a lot of foreigners ― who would have been banned from entering the island if the ETA service was in use ― are abusing the system to stay and make money in Korea without legal procedure.
"The service will not be a barrier to luring more travelers. It rather shortens immigration procedures so travelers won't feel any discomfort," an official from the Ministry of Justice was quoted as saying at the meeting.
The ministry believes adopting the ETA will rather enhance the quality of tourism and stressed its benefits.
According to the ministry, travelers (who are not under suspicion) receive automated permission within 30 minutes after applying for a K-ETA, are exempt from filing a landing card on entry, and are allocated to exclusive immigration checkpoints.
The ministry didn't clarify when the new service will be implemented on the island, but promised it would have more conversations with the citizens before the adoption.
Jeju citizens say there's nothing much they can do if the ministry goes ahead with the measure as it solely supervises the immigration policy. But they are united in expressing their concerns and informing the ministry about Jeju's predicament.
JTA is scheduled to hold a series of meetings with small business owners in the hotel industry, car rental services, and other sectors to collect their opinions. Jeju city has plans to visit the justice ministry to ask to reconsider the measure.
"We all know the ministry is in charge of the matter. But it is evident that the policy will affect Jeju citizens' lives as the island is heavily reliant on tourism for their livelihood. We have to deliver their interests and worries as a civil servant. We will try our best," an official from Jeju city told The Korea Times.