Holders of rail passes for foreign visitors to the PyeongChang Olympics may be unable to use them over the Lunar New Year period, as priority booking has been given to Korean residents.
The five- and seven-day PyeongChang Korail Passes allow the holders to book spots on trains months in advance, including during the Feb. 9-25 games period. But seats on trains for the Seollal period from Feb. 14-18 are being issued to Korean residents only through a separate Korail site to open at 6 a.m. on Wednesday.
Pass holders will only be able to secure places on trains when the remaining seats open for general sales at 4 p.m. Many rail pass holders have expressed frustration at being unable to make plans in advance, fearing tickets could sell out before they get a chance to book.
“Hundreds of thousands of non-Koreans are coming for these games and are relying on a rail line that was constructed specifically for the events. ... We paid money in advance for the event tickets, have spent money on expensive flights and hotel rooms, and may arrive in Seoul with no way to actually get to the games on time,” said Cody Kimball, a member of a Facebook group of people facing transport difficulties for the Olympics.
“Why is there no number of seats set aside for the Olympic game pass holders?” she said.
Another pass holder, Ole Jakob Hollerud, is traveling from Norway with his brother for the Olympics.
“We feel tricked and cheated since we have booked PyeongChang Korail passes believing we could travel as much as we wanted,” he said. “In my brother and my case, five of the seven days of our passes are during the period Feb. 14-18 and we have tickets for nine events during this period. Our fear is not being able to get to the venues in Alpensia and Gangneung since we are staying in Seoul.”
Some visitors have chosen to use the pass to stay in Seoul for the games period and avoid price gouging by hotels near the venues. One visitor from Sweden, who has traveled to Korea before, told The Korea Herald that when he planned his trip last summer, out-of-town rooms without beds were going for as much as 400,000 won ($373) a night.
He booked in Seoul instead. “But without the KTX, the whole thing falls apart,” he said. “I’m disappointed and worried that this mess will ruin the reputation for Korea generally, and that it’ll ruin my girlfriend’s trip specifically. I want her to appreciate Korea as much as I do, but as it looks now, this will be very hard.”
|A KTX train bears advertising for the PyeongChang Olympics, which run from Feb. 9-25. (Yonhap)|
As of Wednesday, the website introduction for the pass made no mention of difficulties reserving over the Seollal period, only that reservations for the period would be unavailable until Jan. 17. A clarification was added to the description Thursday.
Even the release date was initially undisclosed, with Korail refusing to release the date in a reply to a customer query on Dec. 20.
“Release date of seat reservation for Seollal period will be announced at once when it comes to be confirmed,” it said.
“Since every policy decision goes through policy review, we are planning to announce precise updates to customers which is mendatory (sic).”
The reply made no mention of difficulty reserving seats during this period, or that Koreans would be able to reserve before pass holders. Many have complained about poor communication from Korail, even after more than 150 queries and complaints about the Seollal ticket issue have been posted on its customer Q&A page, including some in Japanese that went unanswered.
Lee Kyung-soo, Korail’s general manager of tourism and distribution, said about 1,000 people had bought passes as of Tuesday, but conceded he did not know how many more would buy one or how many Olympics visitors would seek to travel on regular tickets. Several people the Korea Herald spoke to were planning to travel without passes, either for the day, or because they had accommodation near the venues.
Lee was optimistic they would be able to travel by train, although likely without an assigned seat, as more services would be provided during the Olympics.
“Of course it may still be difficult to get a standing ticket depending on the situation, but there will be 51 trains going to Gangneung each day, at 20-minute intervals, so even if you cannot get a ticket for the time you need, you can still take one 20 minutes later and watch the games,” he said.
However, this is not the case for all routes, as those 51 services do not all go from the same station -- 35 start at Cheongnyangni in Seoul and 16 start at Incheon.
“It’s a shame we were unable to let people know ahead of time about the seats. But it’s very important that Korean people visit their hometowns for the holiday,” Lee said.
Many pass holders see this as the wrong priority.
“I want them to offer the tickets during that period for sale to foreigners prior to locals. To give us a chance to get to the accommodation and events that we have paid a lot of money to attend,” said David Heseltine, who is traveling from Australia for the games.
“Korea has invited the world to come to their country and to experience this event. They have promised easy transport to the Olympics. And now they are favoring their local population over the people who are coming to visit their country.”
By Paul Kerry (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Lim Jeong-yeo contributed to this report. – Ed.