Winter Olympics in South Korea has been a tough sell

Winter Olympics in South Korea has been a tough sell

It appears that sales of tickets to events at the 2018
Pyeongchang Winter Olympics have been dampened by increased tensions between
the U.S. and North Korea.

“The rhetoric between North Korea and the U.S. has not
helped sales,” said Anbritt Stengele, founder and president of
Chicago-based Sports Traveler, which assembles Olympics travel packages.

Over the past several weeks and months, the governments of
North Korea and the U.S. had exchanged remarks that raised concerns about the
threat of a nuclear war.

On Jan. 2, President Donald Trump tweeted that his nuclear
button is bigger and more powerful than North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s.

There have also been signs of increased tensions between
North and South Korea, notably in August, when, after North Korea tested an
intercontinental ballistic missile for the second time, South Korea ordered the
deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)
anti-missile defense system, stoking fears of an attack on the Korean peninsula.

In December, travel forecast company ForwardKeys noted that
travel to South Korea had been impacted by the crisis.

In an end-of-year global travel analysis and 2018 forecast,
ForwardKeys stated, “Travel to South Korea is still suffering from the
wintery conditions of the THAAD missile crisis, and the deep setback is
unlikely to be reversed by a recent thaw in diplomatic relations or the
simultaneous occurrence of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang with Chinese New
Year — conditions that in other years would probably precipitate a perfect
storm in demand.”

There have been signals that North and South Korea are
looking to put their differences aside for the games. In January, the two
countries agreed that their athletes would walk together under a unification
flag at the opening ceremony.

But Stengele said that the apparent thawing is too little,
too late. She said sales for the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, taking place Feb.
9 to 25, are the weakest she has seen since she started selling the Winter
Olympics in 2002.

But she said the challenge of selling this event has gone
beyond political posturing and threatening tweets.

“The destination itself is very difficult to travel to,”
Stengele said. “We are dealing with travelers having to arrive into Seoul
and then transfer on trains to the opposite coast, which is adding time and

Once travelers get to the mountain town of Pyeongchang,
there is limited hotel availability, and even less of the kinds of high-end
accommodations Olympics travelers prefer, she added.

All three InterContinental Hotels Group properties at
Pyeongchang’s Alpensia Resort, including an InterContinental, Holiday Inn
Resort and a Holiday Inn & Suites, are sold out during the Olympic Games,
as well as Pyeongchang’s Orient Hotel, Kensington Flora and Iwant Resort. Of
the towns nearby, only the Benikea Hotel in Wonju appears to fit the bill as a
full-service hotel, and that’s sold out, as well.

In Seoul, which is about 80 miles away, two of Hilton’s
three Seoul hotels — a Conrad and the Millennium Seoul Hilton — are quoting
rates during the Olympics that are about 25% to 30% higher than early March
room rates, while the third hotel, a Grand Hilton, is quoting slightly lower

Eric Kareus, director of travel and co-owner of ATJ, which
specializes in leisure trips in Asia, noted that while South Korea is not a top
destination for the company, he has had clients voice concerns.

Seoul is a big stopover destination for many Asia travelers,
and some choose to spend a little time there before heading on to their
destinations. But ATJ has had some clients call and ask if they can avoid

Kareus also said that while the company previously had some
FIT travelers choose to do an entirely Korea-focused trip, it hasn’t had any
requests for such trips in the past year.

“Leading up to other Olympics in the region, we saw
considerable interest in those destinations,” said Kareus, who added that
he has not seen any such correlation with the Pyeongchang Olympics.

On the other hand, Brian Peters, CEO of Austin, Texas,-based
Bucket List Events, which sells Olympics packages, said his sales for
Pyeongchang haven’t been bad.

“I am selling considerably more for these games than we
did for Sochi,” Peters said. “Nothing compared to Vancouver, but
still much more than Sochi.”

Peters said that among his clients, concerns about North
Korea’s belligerence seemed to have peaked a few months ago.

“The people booking with us now obviously aren’t
concerned,” he said, adding that the company’s tour to the Demilitarized
Zone, the neutral territory between North and South Korea, is the most
requested experience for those attending the Olympics.

Danny King contributed to this report.

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