Some 3,300 Chinese tourists refused to set foot on South Korean soil after their cruise ship docked at a resort this week.
Their protest was apparently in response to Seoul’s decision to deploy an American anti-missile system.
The country has agreed to install the THAAD (Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence) system as a shield in response to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.
However, the decision has prompted official complaints from Beijing which is concerned that it will upset the balance of power in the region.
A fleet of 80 tour buses and guides were left high and dry on Saturday when the tourists refused to disembark for the at Jeju, South Korea’s Yonhap News has reported.
The report said the local travel agency was not notified of the passengers’ decision prior to their arrival. It was the first time that a large group had refused to disembark at resort island since it opened to cruise ships in the late 1990s.
The 114,000-tonne Costa Serena sailed from Fukuoka in Japan and arrived at Jeju at 1pm on Saturday. It was moored at the island for four hours before continuing to Tianjin, where the cruise ended.
A local official admitted that smaller groups of Chinese tourists had refused to disembark in Jeju in recent days but the scale of this most recent protest had surprised him.
The spontaneous boycott follows Beijing’s order to Chinese travel agencies last week to stop offering tours to South Korea, including flights, hotels and cruises.
In line with the orders, Costa Cruises has removed Jeju from the schedule of 26 sailings between now and the end of June.
In social media posts, the ship passengers – who were all employees of the same company on a works holiday – said the decision not to disembark was their own.
Chinese netizens were quick to express support for their decision. “Let’s show the Koreans the power of our unity. They will understand that their economy is dependent on us,” a Weibo commenter wrote.
The National Tourism Administration last week warned tourists heading to South Korea to “carefully select” their destination.
There have also been reports of South Korean-owned businesses being boycotted, and widespread rumours that a Korean student was attacked by a mob.