SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — With five months to go before the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics open, the Games are barely an afterthought for most South Koreans, with slow local ticket sales amid the biggest political scandal in years and a torrent of North Korean weapons tests.
South Korea wants more than a million spectators for the Games that start in February and expects 70 percent to be locals. But if South Koreans are excited about the Games, they didn't fully show it during the first phase of ticket sales between February and June — the 52,000 tickets purchased by locals during the period were less than 7 percent of the 750,000 seats organizers aim to sell domestically.
International sales got off to a faster start with more than half of the targeted 320,000 seats sold. But now there's fear that an increasingly belligerent North Korea, which has tested two ICBMs and its strongest ever nuclear bomb in recent weeks, might keep foreign fans away from Pyeongchang, a ski resort town about 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the world's most heavily armed border.
South Korean Olympic organizers reopened online ticket sales on Sept. 5 and hope for a late surge in domestic ticket sales as the Games draw closer. Locals purchased nearly 17,000 tickets on the first two days of resumed sales.
In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Lee Hee-beom, president of Pyeongchang's organizing committee, said the North is highly unlikely to cause problems during the Games because North Korean athletes could compete in the South. This is not yet clear, though. North Korea is traditionally weak at winter sports, though a figure skating pair has a chance to qualify and organizers are looking at ways to arrange special entries for North Korean athletes.
Lee also linked his optimism about ticket sales to South Korean experience managing past global events, including the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, three Asian Games and the 2002 World Cup soccer tournament.
"This is a country that sold more than 8 million tickets even for the Expo 2012 in Yeosu," said Lee, 68, a former Cabinet minister and corporate CEO. "We can definitely handle a million tickets."
Organizers have overcome construction delays, local conflicts over venues, and a slow pace in attracting domestic sponsorships. They must now figure out how to create genuine local excitement for the Games and boost ticket sales.
The 1988 Olympics in Seoul were easier. Those Games marked South Korea's arrival on the world stage as a growing industrial power and budding democracy.
In what's now the world's 11th-richest nation, there's no longer an obvious public craving for the global attention brought by hosting a large sports event. There's also worry over the huge cost of hosting the Games and maintaining facilities that might go unused once the party leaves town.
Or perhaps South Koreans, after a whirlwind past year, are simply too tired to be enthusiastic about the Olympics. Millions took to the streets last year and early this year over a corruption scandal that eventually toppled the president from power and landed her in jail, where she remains during an ongoing trial.
It also doesn't help that South Korea has never really had a strong winter sports culture, said Heejoon Chung, a sports science professor at Busan's Dong-A University.
"I don't think there are many people who are willing to stay outdoors in the cold for hours to watch races on snow," he said.
Lee, the organizing committee president, is, unsurprisingly, more optimistic. Most South Koreans tend to wait until the last minute to buy tickets, and the atmosphere will improve once the Olympic torch relay arrives in South Korea in November, he said.
November is also when organizers will start to sell tickets offline at airports and train stations. Kim Dai-kyun, director general of communications for Pyeongchang's organizing committee, said strong advertisement campaigns are planned for television, newspapers, movie theaters and on the internet.
Strong ticket sales are critical because organizers are currently 300 billion won ($267 million) short of the 2.8 trillion won ($2.4 billion) they need to operate the Games. Lee expects new sponsors to sign on and help erase the gap.
Organizers also aim to raise 174.6 billion won ($155 million) by selling about 1.07 million tickets, or 90 percent of the 1.18 million available seats. The 229,000 seats sold during the first phase of ticket sales equal about 21 percent of the target. While this might seem modest, Lee said Pyeongchang has been selling tickets at a faster pace than Sochi was at a similar point ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
The Olympics will cost about 14 trillion won ($12.4 billion) for South Korea, including the 11 trillion won ($9.7 billion) being spent to construct roads, railways and stadiums for the Games. This is larger than the 8 to 9 trillion won ($7 to 8 billion) Seoul projected as the overall cost when Pyeongchang won the bid in 2011.
Kim Hee-soon, director of ticketing for Pyeongchang's organizing committee, said organizers aim to sell 50 percent of their targeted seats by November. They hope to reach 80 to 90 percent of the target by late January and sell the remainder of the tickets during the Games that begin on Feb. 9, she said.
A big worry is the prospect of seeing blocks of empty seats in alpine and cross-country skiing and other snow sports that South Koreans are largely uninterested in.
While organizers didn't provide specific sales figures by sport, they said most of the tickets purchased by South Koreans have been concentrated in a few events in figure skating, ice hockey, short-track and long-track speed skating, and the cheaper seats in the opening and closing ceremonies.
Lee said organizers will focus on selling the low-demand tickets to government organizations, public companies and schools over the next few months to solve the "polarization" in ticket sales.
Lodging could be another problem as tourists are already complaining about soaring room rates. Officials hope prices will stabilize after five new hotels are built by the end of the year, adding more than 2,000 rooms. The government is also planning to add hundreds of apartment rentals, and a 2,200-room cruise ship will serve as a floating hotel in the nearby port of Sokcho.
Organizers say a new high-speed rail line will link Seoul and Pyeongchang in an hour, starting in December, and will also allow travelers from the Seoul area to visit the Games and return home the same day.
THE NORTH KOREA PROBLEM
After taking office in May, South Korean President Moon Jae-in vowed to use the Olympics to try to ease animosities with the North. But his engagement efforts have crumbled amid North Korean nuclear and missile tests.
IOC President Thomas Bach said last month there was "no reason for any immediate concern" about tensions on the Korean Peninsula. That was the week before North Korea fired a potentially nuclear capable intermediate range missile over northern Japan on Aug. 29. The North then conducted its sixth nuclear test on Sept. 3.
Pyeongchang's organizers invited dozens of IOC officials and sponsors' representatives to South Korea on Aug. 30-31 for a briefing on the country's security readiness and an inspection of Olympic facilities, including evacuation shelters. A similar trip will be arranged for National Olympic Committee members in October.
The clearest way to ease worries is to ensure North Korea's participation in Pyeongchang, Lee said.
Organizers will closely watch a September figure-skating competition in Germany featuring the North Korean pair of Ryom Tae Ok and Kim Ju Sik. They represent North Korea's best shot at qualifying for the Olympics, which would likely require a top four finish in Germany.
If the North Koreans fail to qualify, South Korea and the IOC will discuss other ways to secure the North's participation, such as granting special entries in some sports, Lee said. However, Lee said forming unified Korean teams or persuading North Korea to lend some of its facilities for the Games, as proposed by some in South Korea, could be unrealistic.