SEOUL — As the 2018 Winter Olympics approach, the South Korean government is cracking down on price-gouging hotels facing heavy criticism here for ripping off customers.
South Korea’s Ministry of the Interior and Safety announced it is running an intensive pricing clampdown from Dec. 26 through Jan. 31 ahead of the Pyeongchang Games, which start on Feb. 9.
The average rate for hotel accommodations recently spiked to over $460 per night, more than triple the normal peak-season prices, according to a report in South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.
The government said it will also punish businesses canceling reservations and failing to meet hygiene and construction standards.
Call centers have been set up to receive customer complaints in multiple languages. The moves come as part of the government's effort to boost ticket sales for the Pyeongchang Games, which have been sluggish overall but have picked up in recent weeks.
Over 60% of the planned 1.07 million tickets have been sold as of this week, according to organizers. That figure was only 32% two months ago. The organizing committee said sales began improving significantly with the November torch relay throughout Korea.
Local hotel trade groups and the provincial government in Gangwon Province, where the event sites of Pyeongchang and Gangneung are located, are also pressing to get hotels to clean up their acts.
Son Jung Ho, head of the Gangneung branch of the Korea Accommodations Industry Association, announced a campaign to lower hotel and motel prices and to refund the difference to people who already made reservations, according to a report in the Korea JoongAng Daily newspaper.
“Through this campaign I hope Gangneung can leave behind its disgraced reputation for ripping visitors off,” he said. “And I think accommodation charges will be stabilized with more people participating in the campaign.”
Gangwon Province Governor Choi Moon Soon said he is cracking down on accommodations' providers who overcharge or refuse to accept individual reservations. “Over 4,900 suites in 17 large-size lodging facilities in cities within one-hour drive from the Pyeongchang Olympics … have agreed to accept bookings without preferences starting January,” he said.
Social media erupted with criticism over pricing and availability, with some calling the 2018 Games the “rip-off Olympics” and many saying they’d rather watch from home. One Twitter user wrote: “Even if you go to the Olympics, don’t stay in Pyeongchang. After the Games, let’s go home. The last train is at 1 a.m.”
Reports of hotels also charging higher rates to foreigners have circulated. “If some places rip off foreigners, who will come back?” wrote another user on Twitter.
The government crackdown, as well as lackluster reservations, seem to be taking effect as some hotels have begun cutting rates. Rooms at guesthouses and motels in Pyeongchang and Gangwon can now be found starting at around $120 on reservation site Booking.com.
Olympic organizers are expecting more than 100,000 daily visitors to the Games, with around 60,000 staying overnight in facilities within one hour of the event venues.
Despite the challenges in generating interest, organizers have been effective in completing facilities and upgrading travel infrastructure for the Games. All venue construction was completed in mid-December, when the ribbon was cut on the athletes’ village.
The village, a complex of eight, 15-story buildings, will house around 4,000 athletes. After the Winter Olympics and Paralympics are over, the villages will be used as residential apartments. Organizers said all the units have already been sold.
The effort is a stark contrast to the previous Olympics in Rio, which was scrambling to finish venue construction in time for the Games.
A new high-speed train connecting Incheon Airport and Seoul to the event sites also opened on Dec. 22, connecting visitors in less than an hour and 50 minutes from the airport and about an hour and 10 minutes from Seoul.
Operators will run 51 trains daily during the Games and organizers hope it will generate more ticket sales.
The most popular sport so far has been Alpine skiing, with 81% of tickets sold, followed by cross-country skiing with 79%, short track speed skating at 74% and bobsled at 70%.