Airfares from South Korea to China have spiked amid a growing coronavirus outbreak on the southern half of the Korean peninsula, travel agency websites show.
A one-way ticket from Seoul to Qingdao, the port city in China's eastern Shandong province that is about a 90-minute flight from the South Korean capital, has gone up at least fourfold for travel this week, compared with the typical fare. A one-way ticket from Seoul to Yanji, a hub for transport and trade between China and North Korea, has increased by the same multiple.
"The airfare surge is partly due to recent flight cancellations. The one-way trip from Seoul to Qingdao usually costs 400 to 500 yuan (US$57-71), but I think a growing number of Chinese workers in South Korea are trying to get back to China as soon as possible," said a manager at the Chinese online travel agency Ctrip who declined to give her name.
There are more than 300 direct flights between Seoul and Qingdao each week and about 100 between Yanji and Seoul.
As ticket prices between the two countries increase, there have been rampant rumours on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, that South Koreans are fleeing to China because of the coronavirus outbreak in their country.
The Qingdao government issued a statement on Monday that the municipality would restrict the entry of foreign nationals, but did not name South Korea.
"We will strengthen risk assessment and port quarantine, strictly implement airport screening and home isolation for people arriving in Qingdao. We will do our best to explain to foreign nationals and resolutely prevent the spread of the epidemic," the statement said.
But the government statement also stirred up anger on social media, with calls for the Qingdao government to take measures against visitors from Japan and Korea.
"I called the mayor's hotline and I was told that there are no quarantine measures taken against flights from South Korea. What if there is an epidemic? Please don't make Qingdao the second Wuhan, airport screening is not enough!" a Weibo user commented under the government statement, which has gained dozens of likes.
A number of Korean businesses have factories in Qingdao, which is close to their headquarters and where costs are lower. Some of the factories employ translators from Yanji, where many of the Korean-Chinese speak both languages.
After an emergency meeting on Sunday night, the Yanji airport decided to use a special jet bridge and passages to separate domestic flights from inbound planes from South Korea, according to People's Daily.
The coronavirus has killed eight people and sickened more than 830 others in South Korea, a 16-fold rise in just five days. Confirmed cases in South Korea are the highest outside mainland China or the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
Daegu, a city some 150 miles southeast of Seoul, has more than 450 confirmed cases, most of which have been linked to a church that has been referred to as a cult.
On Monday, Korean Air announced that it was stopping all flights to Daegu until March 28, and Asiana Airlines said it would suspend all flights to the city until March 9.
US carrier Delta has waived its change fees for Seoul travel because of health concerns. Travellers who have booked to, from and through Seoul through April 30 can change or cancel their trips for free.
Effective on Tuesday, Hong Kong has banned non-residents travelling from South Korea and those who have been to the country in the past 14 days from entering the city. It has also warned Hongkongers to avoid the country because of the worsening outbreak there.
Also on Monday, four major Hong Kong travel agencies announced the cancellation of all trips to South Korea through the end of March, scuppering travel plans for 3,200 people.
No Chinese mainland cities have declared travel bans against South Korea nationals. When the US government barred foreign nationals who had been in China in the last 14 days from entering the United States, it was condemned by foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying as "violating civil rights" and "reacting inappropriately" to the outbreak.
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