|▲ Governor Won Hee-ryong checks up on screening procedures at Jeju International Airport. Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
The Shilla Jeju, Jungmun, closed its doors to business on Thursday, June 18, after a 40-year-old domestic tourist tested positive for MERS. The man had stayed at the hotel, which is affiliated with Samsung Group, between June 5-8.
He began to show symptoms on June 9 after returning to Seoul. He was confirmed as the country’s 141st MERS patient on June 13 and is thought to have contracted the virus after a May 27 visit to Samsung Medical Center, the main source of the country’s 183 MERS cases as of July 2.
An emergency epidemiological survey was undertaken at the hotel, which is inside one of the country’s most popular tourist resorts, and staff were quarantined.
|▲ Korea has been worst hit by the MERS coronavirus (particles of which are shown) outside of Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy NIAID
The Ministry of Health and Welfare traced people known to have had close contact with the patient and Jeju MERS Control and Prevention Headquarters released details of the man’s Jeju itinerary.
All MERS tests came back negative, however, and Jeju MERS Control and Prevention Headquarters stated that by June 30 all people who had been in contact with the man had been released from quarantine.
In the four weeks between June 2 and July 1, 95 Jeju locals were tested for MERS and all tests returned negative.
The Shilla Jeju head, Lee Bujin, met with Jeju governor Won Hee-ryong on June 18 and promised to share all data with local tourism businesses and work to overcome Jeju’s economic downturn.
It was also announced that the Provincial Mental Health Center will be offering counselling to patients with signs of depression after being isolated, and living expenses will also be provided.
The Shilla scare compounded the damaging effects of the MERS outbreak to Jeju’s tourism industry as international tourists stayed away and direct international flights were canceled.
A transport ministry report suggests 1,550 international flights through Jeju were canceled between June and October. This is 38 percent of national cancelations and 1,391 of those flights were scheduled for June and July. Some 1,514 connected with China and 36 with Taiwan.
International visitors for the month of May were down 24.3 percent on 2014 and between June 1 and 3 alone almost 1,700 Chinese tourists cancelled Jeju trips.
In an attempt to boost traveler confidence, the central government is providing 3 million won in compensation to any international tourists who contract MERS while in the country.
Agreement was also reached between the province and the Chinese and Japanese consul generals to share all MERS data with foreign visitors. A special hotline has been set up between the local health authorities and the consulates to minimize MERS risk to Japanese and Chinese visitors.
Although domestic tourists rose by 5.4 percent in May, perhaps as a result of Jeju’s MERS-free status, many tourist businesses have felt the impact of fewer tourists since the outbreak.
The weekend of June 20 to 21 saw a 33 percent drop in tourists on the weekend before as tourists stayed away. Group tours were the most badly affected.
In response to the downturn, the province is expanding support for local businesses in the tourism industry, the island’s economic engine.
A special 25 billion won recovery fund has been created and low-interest loans up to 450 million won are also available. The Korean Federation of Credit Guarantee Foundations will also support local businesses with 30 million won loans.
Six local hospitals on ‘MERS-free’ list
Halla, Hanmaeum, S-Jungang, E-Jungang, Seogwipo and Jeju National University Hospital are all MERS-free institutes according to the Jeju MERS Control and Prevention Headquarters.
MERS-free hospitals treat patients showing respiratory symptoms in separate units and in single rooms away from other patients. Genetic tests are also conducted in intensive care units when patients are accepted.
Low risk of contagion
The virus has an incubation period of two to 14 days and the likelihood of contagion is thought to be extremely low. The virus does also not appear to pass easily from person to person. according to WHO guidelines.
Anyone with suspected MERS symptoms should not attend a hospital. Instead call Jeju Public Health Center (064-750-4170) and await a house visit.
Strong safeguards are now in place at both arrival and departure terminals at Jeju International Airport and Jeju Port as passengers are checked for fever both manually and by camera.
Records still being broken
Despite the MERS outbreak, on June 16 Jeju welcomed its 6-millionth tourist for the year, breaking last year’s record by 23 days.