During and after the first wave of the coronavirus in Korea, I received lots of questions asking is it safe to travel to Korea or Seoul now. We all know that it’s not possible to travel right now, but when will it be safe to travel and what will travel look like post-coronavirus? Will it be safe in Korea when travel does resume? Will people be able to travel to Korea soon?
Whilst I don’t claim to have the answers to those questions (no one can know for sure), I want to offer some insights into the developing situation. I’ve been updating this guide to the current situation in Korea ever since the first outbreak in February and I’ve done a lot of research into the government’s response, the travel industry within Korea, and the science behind the pandemic.
I want to provide you with relevant, accurate, and essential information about the coronavirus situation in Korea, whether it’s safe to travel to Korea now, and offer insight into future options regarding travel to and inside Korea.
So, if you’re thinking of travelling to Korea in 2020, or even 2021 and beyond, then I hope this article will help you find some answers to the questions many of us are asking about travel in a post-coronavirus world. I’ve tried to use reliable sources as much as possible, but some of the content will be from my own experiences and opinions. I’ll let you know which is which throughout.
I’m not a registered expert in the field of pandemics or infectious diseases. I’m a travel blogger who has lived in Korea for the last 5 years and lived and travelled extensively around the world for more than a decade. I’ve experienced first hand the impact of MERS and SARS in Korea and other countries that I’ve lived in, including Hong Kong.
If you want to know more about Korea, or have any more questions about travelling to Korea now or in the future, then I’d recommend joining the Korea Travel Advice & Planning Group on Facebook. It’s a great resource with lots of excellent information about Korea, with friendly discussions about life and travel in the country.
In case you’re looking for more general travel and safety tips for visiting South Korea, then be sure to check out my article filled with essential pre-travel advice.
In this article I’ll briefly cover Korea’s response to the coronavirus before moving on to look at whether it’s safe to travel to Korea yet and when travel will likely be possible in the future. I’ll also provide lots of tips about how to travel safely in Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Disclaimer: I am not a registered doctor and any medical advice offered here is only my opinion from personal experiences or research. If you have health concerns and are worried about the effects of the coronavirus, you should see your doctor before travelling.
Disclaimer: This article may contain affiliate links, which means I may earn commission if you book after clicking. This won’t cost you anything extra, but helps me to keep on writing content for you. Thanks for your support.
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A Brief History Of The Coronavirus In Korea
I’ve been tracking and reporting about the coronavirus here in Korea since the start of the outbreak. Here’s a brief history of the major developments of the coronavirus situation in Korea. This details the first wave of the coronavirus in Korea. Whether or not there is a second or multiple waves remains to be seen. I’ll keep updating this as the situation unfolds.
January 20, 2020
First Case In Korea
The first case of the coronavirus was reported in Korea. The patient was a 35 year old Chinese woman returning from China and was detained at Incheon Airport and sent into isolation at a designated hospital.
February 23, 2020
Start Of Mass Infection
Known as ‘patient 31’, a lady who was in hospital left several times to visit religious gatherings at the Shincheonji Church in Daegu. These were attended by thousands of other people and the disease spread rapidly in the local area.
February 29, 2020
Peak Of The First Wave
Following on from strict social distancing measures (but no actual lockdown), Korea records its highest one day number of new cases – 909 in total.
April 29, 2020
No New Local Cases
After weeks of slowly decreasing cases, Korea records the first day with no new local cases. The only new cases (4) were all from arrivals at international airports.
May 2, 2020
Itaewon Incident & More Cases
Just a few days after declaring there were no new cases in Korea, an unknowingly infected person visited several bars and clubs in Itaewon and infected dozens more.
May 20, 2020
High Schools Students Return
3rd Grade high school students are the first to return to school, followed up by further grades in elementary and middle schools, as well as kindergarten students on May 27th.
June 8, 2020
All Students Return To School
As of June 8th, 2020, all students have returned to school in Korea. This comes despite a recent increase in the number of cases in Seoul and the surrounding provinces. There have been an average of 50 cases per day for the last two weeks.
June 8, 2020
Free COVID-19 Tests In Seoul
The Seoul Metropolitan Government announced plans that it will give free COVID-19 tests to residents in Seoul, regardless of whether or not they are showing symptoms. This is in response to a number of unexplained cases that have appeared across the city. Read more.
June 22nd, 2020
Korean Government Suggests Second Wave Has Arrived
A second wave of the COVID-19 cases has already started in Korea, following on from the increased cases that have persisted since the long weekend at the end of April / early may. Seoul and the surrounding areas continue to struggle with small clusters of infections.
Despite the last increase in cases, the situation is still more or less under control in Korea. However, only time will tell how many more cases and outbreaks will come in the future. I’ll discuss this later on in the section about future events and possible changes.
Coronavirus Statistics For Korea
These are the latest figures for infections and deaths of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Korea. Figures come from the Korea Centre for Disease Prevention & Control.
Confirmed cases: 12,715
Confirmed deaths: 282
I’ll keep these numbers updated as often as possible.
How Has Korea Dealt With The COVID-19 Coronavirus?
Unlike many other countries around the world, especially in the West, this is not Korea’s first time dealing with a serious infectious disease. When I arrived in Korea in 2015, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), another coronavirus, was affecting the country and a lot of restrictions and precautions were in place. Not as severe as now, but strict all the same.
Before MERS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), also a coronavirus, plagued Korea and the rest of the world in 2003. There was also the 2009 Swine Flu (H1N1) pandemic that swept across the world and killed 170 people in Korea alone.
Korea had the unfortunate position of being one of the first countries to tackle the COVID-19 coronavirus. However, thanks to their previous experience with coronaviruses, as well as a well-run government led by Moon Jae In, the country responded quickly and took decisive action. Many countries are now looking to Korea for inspiration in how to deal with the current situation, as well as for signs that it might be safe to travel to Korea and internationally again now.
These are some of the steps the Korean government has taken to control the spread of the coronavirus in Korea thus far:
Seoul Coronavirus Task Force
The Seoul local government created the Seoul Coronavirus Task Force to deal with the spread of infections across the city. They operate a hotline you can call if you think you’re infected and will help you find emergency medical care. Call 1330 in Seoul, or 1339 outside of Seoul. Read more.
Public Health & Safety Campaigns
Numerous public health and safety campaigns appeared across Korea in both Korean and English (and other languages). These detailed ways to avoid spreading the virus, as well as what to do if you think you might be infected. Read more.
Increased Testing & Free Healthcare For Infected Patients
The Korean government said it would cover all costs relating to treatment of the coronavirus. If you were near an infected person, your test costs were also covered. Korea rapidly increased the number of tests it conducted each day after the main outbreak in Daegu started. Read more.
Travel Restrictions Into Korea
Various travel restrictions were put in place, starting with a ban for travellers from Wuhan, China. These later developed into travel bans for various countries that had high levels of the cases. Read more.
Airport Screening & Tests
Korea started screening arrivals into major airports by checking their temperature with thermal scanners. They later moved to providing full tests for travellers from Europe and other heavily infected areas.
Mandatory 14 Day Quarantine For Arrivals To Korea
From April 1st, all arrivals to Korea were forced into a mandatory 14 day quarantine. For foreign visitors, they would be placed in government facilities and be charged 100,000 won per day. This effectively stopped most travel to Korea. Read more.
Controlled The Price & Availability Of Masks
After the rapid rise of cases in Korea during February and March, the Korean government took control of mask supply and banned the export of face masks. It also controlled the price of masks, to avoid people taking advantage of the system for profits. Face masks were rationed and people could only buy up to 2 masks on certain days of the week, based on their birth year. Read more.
Masks Mandatory For Public Transport
From May 26th, everyone must wear a mask while they use public transport, taxis, or take flights. Those who refuse to wear a mask will be denied entry. Read more.
You can learn more about Korea’s response to the coroanvirus, and how they’re working to make it safe to travel to Korea again, in the link below:
Later in this article you can find out more about the public health and safety campaigns by the government and how to stay healthy while travelling in Korea.
Is It Safe To Travel To Korea Now?
This is a very difficult question to answer as it depends on so many factors. Technically, it is safe to travel to Korea now, however, you probably won’t be able to. Any travellers to Korea will have to do a mandatory 14 day quarantine (at a cost of nearly $1,000) when they arrive.
Many people around the world are currently in lockdown of some form and not even considering travel (although most are probably dreaming about it as I am). So it would be pointless to say that of course it’s safe to travel to Seoul or Korea now and enjoy all the wonderful sights, visit festivals, or enjoy various summer activities.
Therefore, in this section I want to outline the current situation in Korea. I will keep updating this as the situation changes. Most of the details in this section will be based on my personal observations, but I’ll try to back them up with other news articles where relevant.
Travel Advice As Of June 28th, 2020:
There have been an average of 50 cases per day in Korea for the last two weeks, after reaching almost 0 cases in late April. These cases have been mostly tied to a few isolated hot-spots, including churches, clubs, private schools, and offices. These places were locked down quickly and thousands of tests have been conducted to measure and control the spread of the virus.
Schools have reopened and all students are now attending school. So far, there have only been a few cases of infected students, and schools have continued with lots of protection in place, such as screens between desks and in cafeterias.
In Korea, many people are wearing masks and using hand sanitizers. Hand sanitizers are available on all public transport (buses, trains, subway), and are widely distributed in public places, private businesses, and even in lifts for apartment buildings.
This new ‘distancing in daily life’ policy recommends allows people to return to more activities, such as visiting parks and museums, as well as holding social gatherings. The 5 basic rules of this campaign are:
- Stay home when you feel ill
- Keep a distance of two meters between other people
- Wash hands frequently
- Wear a face mask
- Ventilate indoor spaces regularly.
Bars and clubs were also opened again, after previously being shut in Seoul. However, after the sudden explosion in cases due to people clubbing in Itaewon in early May, these measures may be reviewed.
My Personal Thoughts About The Current Situation In Korea
I’ve lived through the coronavirus outbreak in Korea and have had to adapt, but never to the extent that others have in other countries, including my home country, England. There was never a lockdown in Korea, and that has helped people stay healthy and sane.
Korean people mostly follow the advice of the government and have access to information and technology that has helped to keep them informed about the situation. The daily text messages about local infections or national problems have helped me take precautions, and community-first attitude in Korea has led to people working together to keep everyone safe. Of course, there are still some selfish and stupid people, but the majority are doing their best to keep Korea healthy.
People here have been living a (mostly) normal life, despite the threat of the coronavirus. Cafes, restaurants, shops, and bars have been open and busy. Most people are wearing masks whenever they’re out in public to reduce the risk of infection, which has really helped control the spread of the virus.
These measures have allowed Korea to continue to be a relatively safe place and one that has handled the coronavirus outbreak really well. After the initial outbreak in the Daegu area, the response by the Korean government and citizens has helped make Korea a safe place to live.
I hope that in the future, it will also make it a safe place to travel again, too.
Getting A Coronavirus Test In Korea
On June 26th I had to go for a coronavirus test in Daejeon as I was in close proximity to someone who was infected with the coronavirus. Here’s a brief overview of the process and how Korea handles coronavirus testing.
If you’ve been in contact with someone who has been infected, the local government will send you a text message and inform you that you need to get a test. Those who receive this message will be eligible for a free coronavirus test. For those who don’t receive this message, they can still take the test. However, they will have to pay for the test. The cost of the test is between 100,000 – 200,000 KRW, depending on where you go.
I was in the latter group. I was in the area of an infected patient, but I didn’t receive a message from the government. Therefore, I had to pay for my own treatment. Fortunately I was able to find a hospital that offered the test for only 100,000 KRW.
I called the hospital in the morning and was told that there would be long queues to get the test and that I could wait for an hour or more. There weren’t long queues at the hospital, and I think this was mostly to put people off from getting the test and overwhelming the hospital. There’s an outbreak in Daejeon at the moment, so I can understand a lot of people want to get the test and it’s putting a lot of pressure on hospitals who are also dealing with more serious cases.
I visited the hospital after calling and there were about 10 other people waiting for the test and the whole procedure took about 20 minutes from registering to taking the test. There was an outdoor area setup for conducting the tests and everyone had to have their temperature checked, fill out their details, and then wait for their test. It was pretty simple, but if you don’t speak Korean, it can be difficult to get the test.
The Coronavirus Test
When it was my turn for the test, I entered the glass booth and stood in front of two yellow gloves (pictured above). The nurse entered from the other side, to prevent contamination from the person being tested, and slipped her hands into the gloves. She took one of the swabs and told me I might feel some pain and discomfort, and then shoved it up my nose.
To be honest, it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t pleasant. The swab was several inches long and went quite far inside my head (it felt like it went into the back of my brain!). The nurse wiggled it around for about 10 seconds and then took it out. Even after the swab was out, it still felt like it was stuck in my head and I had an unpleasant feeling in my sinuses for the rest of the day.
I was only given a few seconds to recover before the next swab went down my throat. Fortunately, the throat swab was not deep inside my throat and didn’t really feel uncomfortable at all. Maybe I was in too much shock after the first swab?
Once the throat swab was out and tucked safely away in a plastic bag with the first swab, I was free to go. I went back out, paid for the test, and told that I would get the results the next day. The whole process was quick and less painful than a trip to see the dentist.
The test results were sent by text, so I didn’t have to come back to the hospital. I did go back to the hospital anyway, because I wanted to collect the physical report that showed the results.
Good news, I wasn’t infected. And I hope I never will be as I don’t really want to take that test again.
The Future Of Post-Coronavirus Travel Globally
The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is a global issue, and so safe travel to Korea is probably going to be tied to the safety of world travel in general. How and when the world gets back to travelling safely again is impossible to predict right now. Without a vaccine or effective treatment for the virus, we must assume that the number of cases can increase again at any time.
I’ve been following the various reports and, well, guesses about what will happen in the next year or two. Before talking more about the future of post-coronavirus travel in Korea, it is necessary to discuss possible scenarios for the whole world first.
There are many potential scenarios for future waves of the virus and the level of infections going forward. Here are three of the most likely scenarios, according to the World Economic Forum.
Scenario 1: Peaks And Valleys
In the first scenario, there are multiple peaks and troughs that gradually reduce in size as people become aware of the problem and take more precautions. Once they let their guard down (as seems to have happened in China and Korea recently), the cases peak again.
As countries begin their lockdown, we’ll see whether or not this is the likely course of the coronavirus. This is perhaps the most likely scenario if people don’t continue to follow social distancing and health precautions.
Scenario 2: Fall Peak
In the second scenario, the coronavirus will spread in a similar pattern as the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic that killed millions of people around the world. Basically, the colder, wetter weather that arrives in autumn will spark a second wave of infections that lasts for a longer period than the first wave.
If this happens, then it is highly unlikely that it will be safe to travel to Korea or anywhere else before a vaccine is developed. This is the most negative outlook for the future, but we mustn’t ignore the lessons from our history and rule it out.
Scenario 3: Slow Burn
The final scenario is the slow burn, which has an original peak when people weren’t aware of the situation, which isn’t as bad later once people learn to adapt to living with the outbreak.
This is probably the most likely future scenario (my personal opinion), as the world has gone through a dramatic shift in awareness of pandemics and personal hygiene.
However, this scenario also lasts the longest, with cases appearing for the next two years or so until at least 60-70% of the population can be vaccinated or natural immunity develops.
What this could mean for future travel remains to be seen, but most likely years of reduced travel, stricter checks, increased hygiene controls and measures, and a generally higher cost of travel.
The Future Of Post-Coronavirus Travel In Korea
Based on the 3 scenarios above, it is unlikely that travel to Korea is going to return to levels pre-coronavirus any time soon. At least not until a vaccine has been developed and distributed widely.
Korea has passed the first wave and done tremendously in keeping the death rates low (around 250 as of mid-May). However, with the risk of new waves comes the chance for more, and higher, death rates in the future.
If the first scenario plays out, then expect travel bans to remain in place for the next year or maybe more. Should we face the second scenario, I don’t think anyone will be thinking about travelling to Korea or anywhere at all for a long time. I really hope that doesn’t occur.
In the third scenario, the slow burn, there is hope that travel to Korea will begin to be possible again in the near future. A reduced number of infections and strict controls could allow a limited number of travellers into the country.
In my personal opinion, I believe the numbers of travellers to Korea will be lower at first as there will have to be increased checks at the airports, which could add hours to the time spent entering the country. Furthermore, if airlines are required to keep some seats empty on planes, and demand for air travel is reduced, then fewer flights will be available.
What Does This Mean For Travelling Inside Korea?
Well, it’s likely that there will be distancing requirements at attractions, there will probably be more temperature screening at public places and attractions (there already is at most subway stations), masks will be mandatory on public transport (they already are for Seoul’s subway during rush-hour), and many other rules to keep everyone healthy.
Right now people are under similar restrictions, and if Koreans can travel safely within their own country, then perhaps it’s safe to allow a limited number of tourists in as well. However, this will have to be done in waves depending on how successfully Korea controls the number of new cases and tourists who visit Korea.
When Will It Be Safe To Travel To Korea Again?
Again, I can’t promise anyone an exact date for when travel to Korea will resume again. However, there has been encouraging signs from airlines around the world, including Korean Air, that flights will resume again by this summer. Indeed, Korean Air announced that it will resume some international routes from June 1st.
I predict that travel will start to become possible by autumn (just in time to see Korea’s beautiful autumn leaves). This is all based on the assumption that the number of cases remain low, people follow the recommend guidelines, and other countries also control the spread of the coronavirus.
For a list of all the current travel restrictions by country (according to Korean Air), check out the link below:
Insight From Someone Living In Korea During COVID-19
The media are very good at reporting statistics and scary stories about the COVID-19 situation in Korea and beyond, often highlighting the most negative things. However, sometimes it’s best to hear from people living in the country (like myself) or those travelling to Korea now.
You can find lots of personal experiences about living through the COVID-19 coronavirus in Korea from places like YouTube these days. One channel that offers a lot of good insights into the situation here in Korea, as well as the impact on small businesses and life in general, is the Living Korea channel. Check out the channel below:
What Should You Do If You’re In Korea And Worried About Infection?
If you’re already in Seoul as a tourist or a resident, and you’re worried that you might be infected with the coronavirus, then you should contact the Seoul Novel Coronavirus Infection helpline. The number to contact them is below:
For people outside of Seoul, please dial 1339.
If you can’t get in touch, then immediately go to a hospital or clinic and advise them that you think you might be infected.
The word ‘coronavirus‘ is well known in Korea now and if you use this word, people will know what you’re talking about. If you’re worried about whether it is safe to travel to Korea, contact a doctor for advice before you leave.
What Is The COVID-19 Coronavirus?
I’m sure we’ve all read about the coronavirus online, it’s hard to miss the stories in the media, but what is it all about? I’m no scientist, so I’ll use the words of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention to help explain.
“The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is a virus (more specifically, a coronavirus) identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and people.”
It is unknown what actually causes the coronavirus. I’ll update this section as more details about what caused the coronavirus, and how it spreads, becomes available.
Symptoms Of The COVID-19 Coronavirus
The 2019 nCoV coronavirus (COVID-19), as with SARS and MERS, is a respiratory infection that has a wide range of symptoms. The most extreme of which can result in death. Most people, however, have little to no symptoms.
Common symptoms of the (COVID-19) coronavirus can include:
- Shortness of breath
- Breathing difficulties
More severe symptoms can include:
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome
- Kidney failure
Symptoms can appear between 2-14 days after exposure.
It’s worth noting that a lot of the common symptoms are what you’ll also find when you’re suffering from regular winter influenza. If you have these symptoms, you should go and see a doctor to be safe.
Transmission Of The COVID-19 Coronavirus
The transmission of the 2019 nCoV coronavirus (COVID-19) still remains unclear. Scientists believe that transmission began from animals to humans, and then later developed to spread from humans to humans.
There are several suggested methods of transferring the coronavirus from human to human. The most common method for these types of virus to spread is through respiratory droplets from someone sneezing or coughing. That’s why a good respiratory mask can prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
Another method of transmission is transfer through feces. That means people with dirty hands from visiting the toilet passing the disease when they touch someone else or prepare food for others. That’s why you should wash your hands after visiting the bathroom EVERY TIME, regardless of why you went in there.
More from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention about the transmission of the 2019 nCoV coronavirus below:
Much is unknown about how 2019-nCoV (COVID-19), a new coronavirus, spreads. Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are common in many different species of animals, including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. Rarely, animal coronaviruses can infect people and then spread between people such as with MERS, SARS, and now with 2019-nCoV.
How To Travel Safely In Korea
If you are currently travelling in Korea, or plan to visit Korea soon, then there are some simple steps you can take to reduce the risk of getting a coronavirus infections.
Here are some of the best ways to prevent coronavirus infection:
1: Wash Your Hands Regularly
This might seem like common sense, but it’s shocking how many people don’t wash their hands enough. Always wash your hands when you go to the bathroom. Even if you don’t think your hands are dirty, you’re still touching door handles, taps, etc., that can be contaminated.
You can also use hand sanitizers when it’s not possible to wash your hands. Korea has installed these in most public places now, and you can even find them in shops and cafes. Use them and keep your hands clean.
Also try to avoid touching your mouth or eyes with your hands when you’re out travelling.
2: Cover Your Mouth When You Sneeze Or Cough
When you need to cough or sneeze, make sure to cover your mouth with a tissue. If you don’t have a tissue, however, try to use your elbow or hand (but wash it ASAP). Dispose of the tissues in a closed bin and don’t leave them lying around.
The coronavirus is a respiratory disease and spreads most commonly when people sneeze and cough. Protect others and prevent transmitting any diseases by covering up.
3: Wear A Face mask Even If You Aren’t Sick
You’ve probably noticed a lot of people in Korea and around the world wearing face masks to prevent infection from the coronavirus. This is actually quite a common sight in Korea at this time of year as people are also dealing with fine dust in Korea.
There are several different types of masks that you can use to prevent infection from the coronavirus in Korea. I’d recommend using a mask with a safety rating of N95 or KF94.
4: Stay Away From People Who Look Sick
This should go without saying. Try to avoid close contact with anyone who looks sick, especially if you’re out in public. Staying away from large groups of people will also reduce your risk of catching the COVID-19 coronavirus in Korea.
Avoiding busy areas, such as subway stations and airports might be difficult. Very much so for tourists, so try to follow the other tips if you have to be in a busy area.
5: Avoid Places With Raw Food
This includes traditional markets in Korea, where you can often find fish and other seafood for sale, as well as uncooked meat. Don’t touch any raw food and try to wear a mask if you want to visit these areas.
When eating out, be careful with your food choices, too. Well cooked food is the best option. Also be careful with dairy products and items that should be refrigerated. Also try to avoid food where everyone is sharing the same dish, such as shabu shabu and hot pot.
Health Advice From The World Health Organisation:
Here are some useful posters about staying healthy while travelling from the World Health Organisation. These are useful tips for travelling to any country, not just Korea.
Travel Safety Advice For Korea
The tips I mentioned before are important when you travel to any country in the next few months. They are also good if you’re in an area that might be affected by the coronavirus in your own country.
Here are some other travel safety tips for travelling to Korea:
1: Fine dust can be an issue in Korea. This is usually worst in spring. Find out more about fine dust in Korea.
2: Try to buy bottled water or drink filtered water when you’re in restaurants.
3: Be careful when eating street food. Although hygiene is usually fine, watch out during the summer time. This is mostly for raw food. Also, watch out as it might be spicier than you think!
4: Cars drive on the right hand side of the road in Korea.
5: You may need to get some vaccinations before travelling to Korea, such as hep A and B.
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