Free visas: South Korea steps up efforts to lure Asian tourists

Shoppers walk in the Myungdong shopping district in Seoul, South Korea.
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As South Korea's tourism industry reels from the recent outbreak of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), the government is pulling out the stops to lure visitors back into country, announcing plans to waive visa fees for visitors from China and Southeast Asia.

A $15 tourist visa fee will be waived from July 6 through to September 30 for tour groups from China, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, the AFP reported on Wednesday.

Meantime, the validity of visas issued between March 1 and June 30 will be automatically extended to six months from three months.

"These measures are aimed to help boost the tourism industry, which has been affected by the Mers outbreak," the justice ministry said in a statement.

The country's tourism sector has been hit hard since the outbreak of the deadly virus on May 20.

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Over 123,000 foreigners called off their trips to South Korea in the first eighteen days of June, the Korea Tourism Organization said, the bulk of which were people from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. That implies a more than 20 percent annual slide for Korea's total June visitor arrivals, it said, versus a 7.6 percent rise in May.

MERS has claimed 33 lives in the country since it first emerged, making it the largest outbreak outside Saudi Arabia.

While the spread of MERS has been slowing, a new case was reported on Thursday, the first in five days, bringing the total number of people diagnosed with the acute respiratory illness to 183.

Will MERS insurance save South Korea's tourism?
Will MERS insurance save South Korea's tourism?

On top of measures to boost visitor arrivals, the government last week announced a 5 trillion won ($13 billion) stimulus package to bolster the economy. Two weeks before, the central bank cut its key interest rate to a record low of 1.5 percent in early June in a bid to reduce the economic fallout from the disease.

The MERS outbreak is expected to shave 0.2 to 0.3 percentage points off economic growth as consumption slumps, according to the Ministry of Strategy and Finance.

According to data from the finance ministry, sales at department and discount stores saw double-digit declines in the first week of June compared to average sales in the previous two weeks.

Reflecting increased unease over the outbreak of the virus, consumer sentiment slumped to a 2-year low in June.