Eastar Air, the only South Korean airline operating regular flights to Ibaraki Airport in Japan, recently received an e-mail message from a public official of Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan, right after the low-cost carrier decided to stop the service amid souring relations between Seoul and Tokyo. “It is so sad that the route service is halted,” wrote the Japanese tourism promotion official, whom this reporter met late last year during a business trip to the prefecture. “But it’s not the end of the world, and we will make our best efforts (to revive the service).”
Ibaraki Prefecture is about 90 minutes’ drive from Tokyo. Asiana Airlines launched Korea’s first flight service to Ibaraki in 2010 due to its close proximity to the Japanese capital, only to be suspended in the following year after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Later, there had occasionally been irregular flights to Ibaraki but no regular service. Ibaraki officials made multiple trips to Korea to woo airline companies and travel agencies. They also hired several Koreans to help them and attended tourism fairs and seminars held in Korea. Their hard work paid off when Eastar Air launched regular flights to the prefecture in July last year.
When the reporter met the Ibaraki officials in Seoul early this year, they boasted that they were able to read Korean signboards and speak simple Korean. They said that they learned Korean in their spare time to know Korea better. Last month, Ibaraki people clad in Korean traditional dress hanbok held an event at the prefectural airport offering kimchi and Korean street food. They not only tried to attract Korean tourists but also encouraged Japanese people to visit Korea. Such efforts led to increased Japanese tourists in Korea. Since August last year, more than 9,000 Japanese visited Korea through Ibaraki Airport.
At a time when the hard efforts helped promote Korea-Japan exchanges, the discontinuation of the Ibaraki flights is heart-breaking news. “I shed my tears at the news of the discontinued flights,” a Korean staff worker hired by Ibaraki to promote Korea wrote on his social media page. Nevertheless, Eastar Air was reserved about commenting on the latest atmosphere and future plans, simply noting that “heart-breaking things are happening in the airline industry.”
Regrettably, efforts to promote the airline and tourism industries are going up in smoke due to the aggravating relations between the two neighboring countries. “Why do hard-working, ordinary people have to suffer from the worsening Korea-Japan relations?” lamented an official at a Korean airline company.