Lee Jung-yoon, 26, bought a round-trip plane ticket to Fukuoka for 99,000 won, which she found surprising because it was cheaper than a ticket to Jeju Island. Normally, the price of airfare to the Japanese city is at around 200,000 won. But with Japan struggling to fully restore its power as a travel destination following its devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, budget travelers are no longer priced out.
"There was a special promotion for April and I couldn't resist it. I originally planned to go to Jeju Island with my friends, but found that air fare to Japan is cheaper," she said. "There were even cheaper ones at 69,000 won, although I couldn't fit it in my schedule. Fukuoka is far away from the troubled region that was hit by the earthquake, so I have no uneasiness.''
Cheap trips to Japan usually meant spending hours on a bumpy ferry from Busan to Fukuoka or Tsushima Island. However, budget airlines like Tway, Jeju Air and Air Busan are now providing further options to penny-pinching travelers.
A local travel agency Tour Baksa offered a 99,000 won travel package to Fukuoka, including airfare and a night's accommodation in February and it sold out in three days.
Jeju Air, the country's largest budget carrier, offers a 79,000 won ticket on the Incheon-Fukuoka route and Air Busan prices its Busan-Tokyo route at 139,000 won.
The competition got fiercer as more low-cost carriers started operating in Korea. All Nippon Airways-backed budget carrier Peach Aviation will start operating between Incheon and Osaka from May 8. Peach said it will release a limited number of 30,000 won tickets as a promotion, luring customers who want to go on an inexpensive overseas excursion.
On the other hand, round trip airfare from Gimpo Airport to Jeju is over 200,000 won on weekends.
According to Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), 63,700 Koreans visited Japan in April 2011, soon after the quake hit Japan in March. It is 67 percent less from the same period the previous year, casting a gloomy shadow over the Japanese tourism industry.
"In November, the number of Korean tourists to Japan was 24 percent lower than in 2010. Though the number is still smaller than before the quake, it is slowly picking up," a JNTO official in Seoul said.
The slow increase is caused by the low-price airfare and travel packages to Japan.
"About a year has passed since the quake and nuclear accident so travelers' anxiety over safety has decreased," Kim Ji-hye, a Nextour spokeswoman, said. "Low-priced tickets to Japan offer an alternative and attracts tourists."