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In South Korea’s mountainous Gangwon province, construction workers are putting final touches on the 35,000-seat outdoor stadium that will be used for the opening and closing ceremonies for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Mission accomplished, except for one thing. It’s unclear at this point just how many sports fans will actually show up.
With less than 100 days to go before the Games start on February 9, organisers have sold little more than 30 percent of the target of 1.1 million tickets, which range from $18 to $1,340. And there’s still a $270 million shortfall in the local Games committee’s $2.5 billion budget.
Ominously, most of the venues lie just 90 kilometres (60 miles) from the border with North Korea amid military tension that’s rarely been so high since war on the peninsula ended in an uneasy truce in 1953.
Some things are going right. South Korea’s world-class engineering firms are on target to have all the facilities ready — free of the problems that plagued the last Winter Olympics in Sochi. And organisers have met their corporate sponsorship goals. But the question is, will the nation reap long-term economic benefits?
South Korea has a lot riding on PyeongChang, which it hopes will showcase the country “as the new hub for winter sports in Asia.” On top of the Games committee’s budget, $10 billion is being poured into infrastructure to support the Olympics, much of it on road upgrades and the extension of a high-speed rail network into the heart of the ski fields.
Yet international tourists are shunning the nation, with visitor numbers down 24 percent this year as North Korea ramps up rocket launches and nuclear tests. Making matters worse, a US missile shield that Seoul deployed to guard against the threat raised the ire of Beijing. It lashed out with a ban on package tours to South Korea that halved the number of travellers from China.
South Korea and China indicated this week that they want to put the dispute behind them, which should pave the way for tourists to return. It’s still hoped that Chinese skiers, who have flocked to
Japanese resorts in recent years, will become a source of growth for winter tourism in South Korea, which is less than two hours flight time from Shanghai and Beijing.