Unpredictable North Korea is scaring off visitors for Winter Olympics

Seats are seen at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.
SeongJoon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Seats are seen at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games.

Less than three months before the Winter Olympics open in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the Games are struggling to draw visitors from home and abroad, largely because of fears about the secretive and unpredictable neighbor to the North just 50 miles away.

As of Nov. 16, organizers say they've hit just 41% of their sales target of 1.06 million tickets, with sales in South Korea even weaker than those by international tourists.

Anbritt Stengele, founder of Sports Traveler, a Chicago-based travel agency, said she's never seen such a sluggish market.

"The interest level is very low for this Olympics," said Stengele. "We had Sochi (Russia) in 2014, and that interest level was lower than Vancouver (in 2010). But this one is even lower than Sochi. I would just classify it as extremely light interest. Sales have been stagnant."

She and other travel agents say factors ranging from fears about North Korea aggression to the absence of NHL players to concerns about travel logistics have put a big damper on interest.

Stengele said North Korea is a big factor, as global tensions are running high over bellicose threats exchanged by President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim has conducted a record number of ballistic missile tests this year, as well as a test of its most powerful nuclear weapon to date. Both leaders have threatened to annihilate the others' country if they order a first strike.

In addition, North Korea has a massive military and huge arsenal of conventional weapons aimed at South Korea, and the possibility of a hostile incident during the Olympics is hanging in the air here.

Some seasoned Olympic travelers are also balking about flying into this capital city and then having to transfer to event sites located more than 140 miles away.

"They're burning an extra night in a hotel room in Seoul," Stengele said. "That in itself has had a lot of pushback from our regular customers who are used to landing and hitting the ground running."

She also said she's heard concerns about whether travel insurance will cover cancellations in the event of a disruption by North Korea, and the lack of accommodation options such as name-brand international hotel chains at the venue locations.

A new high-speed rail line, set to open by the end of the year, will travel directly from Incheon Airport to Gangneung, the hub city for ice sports, in a little over two hours. From downtown Seoul to Pyeongchang, where the snow sports and opening and closing ceremonies will be held, the travel time is about an hour and a half. Organizers say they are expecting some visitors to commute to the Olympic Games from Seoul.

Travel search engine KAYAK also reports lower interest in travel to Pyeongchang compared to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.

During a four-to-six month timeframe ahead of the Games, KAYAK found a 63% increase over last year in searches for Pyeongchang for dates around the Games, according to David Solomito, vice president of North American marketing at KAYAK. Rio had a spike of 111% over the same timeframe.

"It's safe to say that while both destinations gained interest in advance of the Games, Rio saw higher travel demand at this point," said David Solomito, vice president of North American marketing at KAYAK.

Solomito added there were other factors at play. "This isn't surprising given the popularity and larger size of the Summer Games compared with the Winter — and relatively shorter travel times between the U.S. and Rio compared to the U.S. and Pyeongchang.

More from USA Today:
Olympics stuck in middle of North Korea uncertainty
Los Angeles still has business to settle on road to 2028 Olympics
North Korea's nuclear tests pose radiation threats

It isn't just American visitors staying away. International tourism to South Korea has been bleak in 2017, with arrivals down almost 24% through the first nine months of the year, according to the Korean Tourism Organization.

South Korea has been suffering from a massive drop in visitors from China, in large part because of the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile defense system last May that has angered the communist government in Beijing.

China, which claims that the powerful radars used with the THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense) system can be used for spying, retaliated by banning Chinese tour groups to South Korea.

Last week, South Korean President Moon Jae In and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed after a meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam that they would work to normalize relations.

Organizers say they're still confident on hitting their targets, and are counting on momentum building as the Games approach. Advertising and public events have picked up significantly as the Olympic Torch began its relay around the country on Nov. 1. Korean pop concerts and celebrity appearances are being held to promote the Games and a constant stream of video ads can be seen on Seoul subway cars.

"Koreans are known to be last-minute buyers, so we expect to see an increase in sales as we mark several milestones," said Nancy Park, a spokeswoman for the Pyeongchang Games Organizing Committee. "We believe that excitement for the Games will continue to get stronger."

Stengele said she is expecting interest to grow in December and January as many events have their final qualifications and fans will know which athletes are going to compete in high-profile sports such as figure skating.

Hwang Hye Mi, an editor at a publishing company in Seoul, said that she has noticed more information about the Olympics recently, which has piqued her interest. But for now, she remains one of many uncommitted fans.

"If I have a chance, I'll go," she said. "If I don't have a chance, I won't go. But even if I'm not involved, I feel proud somehow that Korea is hosting the Olympics for a second time. I hope it succeeds."