China halts short-term visas for S. Koreans, Japanese over Covid travel curbs

China suspended issuing short-term visas to South Koreans and Japanese on Tuesday, its embassies in Seoul and Tokyo said, in apparent retaliation for restrictions imposed on Chinese travellers over Covid concerns.

The measure was announced first in South Korea, which has introduced a host of new rules for visitors from China, including visa restrictions and testing requirements.

It joined more than a dozen countries that have imposed new travel rules over worries of surging Covid-19 infections in China.

"Chinese embassies and consulates in Korea will suspend the issuance of short-term visas for Korean citizens," Beijing's embassy in Seoul said.

It said the measures would be "adjusted again in line with South Korea's removal of the discriminatory entry restrictions on China".

China currently issues no tourist visas and requires a negative Covid test for all arrivals.

Beijing's embassy in Tokyo announced in a brief statement late on Tuesday that the issuing of visas for Japanese citizens would also be halted, giving no specific reason or indication of how long the measure would last.

Seoul is also capping flights from China, and travellers from the mainland, Hong Kong and Macau must test negative before departure.

Seoul's foreign minister has defended the measures as being "in accordance with scientific evidence".

Mainland visitors are also being tested on arrival and are required to quarantine for a week if they test positive, authorities have said.

Japan will now require arrivals from mainland China and Macau to test before travel and on arrival, a measure not currently required of other travellers.

Flights from the mainland can only land at specific airports, although Hong Kong arrivals are exempt from the new rules.

- Manhunt -

Headlines in South Korea have been dominated by the case of a Chinese national who tested positive on arriving in Seoul, refused to quarantine and then fled, sparking a two-day manhunt.

Police eventually found the Chinese national, who was not identified but was described as a medical tourist. The visitor will be questioned this week over the infraction, South Korean media reported.

According to official figures, 2,224 Chinese nationals on short-term visas have landed in South Korea since January 2, with 17.5 percent testing positive on arrival.

South Korea has limited its issuance of short-term visas for Chinese nationals to public officials, diplomats, and those with crucial humanitarian and business purposes until the end of January.

All flights from China are also now required to land at South Korea's main Incheon International Airport.

South Korea's southernmost Jeju Island, which has its own international airport and separate visa entry regime, had been a popular tourist destination for Chinese arrivals before the pandemic.

Seoul is "inevitably strengthening some anti-epidemic measures to prevent the spread of the virus in our country due to the worsening Covid-19 situation in China", Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said last month in announcing the measures.

- 'Scientific measures' -

South Korea's foreign ministry said in a statement Seoul "communicated with China in advance" about the measures and that the information was "shared transparently with the international community".

Beijing's foreign ministry said it was "regrettable" that "a few countries still insist on discriminatory entry restrictions against China".

The ministry's spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said China was "firmly opposed" to the restrictions, without commenting specifically on its decision to suspend issuing visas to South Koreans.

"We once again call on relevant countries to take scientific and appropriate measures based on facts," Wang said, discouraging what he characterised as "political manoeuvring and... discriminatory practices".

China's hospitals have been overwhelmed by an explosion in cases after Beijing began unwinding hardline controls that had torpedoed the economy and sparked nationwide protests.

Tourists from China accounted for the largest proportion of all foreign tourists visiting South Korea in both 2019 and 2020, making up 34.4 percent and 27.2 percent respectively, according to Seoul's official data.

But the number of Chinese tourists dropped significantly last year -- from 6.02 million in 2019 to 200,000 for January to November 2022 -- making up only 7.5 percent of all tourists from overseas, South Korea's culture ministry told AFP.

Chinese tourists also made up around a third of all visitors to Japan before the pandemic.

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