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People wait in a line to buy face masks at a retail store in the southeastern city of Daegu in South Korea Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: Korean expats in the UAE are worried about their families back home and many are postponing their overseas travel plans, including a visit for the Cherry Blossoms spring festival because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) scare.

South Korea has seen the highest numbers of cases of COVID-19 outside of China, with 977 confirmed cases and seven deaths.

Speaking to Gulf News on Tuesday, Ahra Go, a hotelier in Dubai, said: “This is a very unfortunate turn of events. I’m worried about my family in Korea and I have actually cancelled my planned vacation in April.”

Late March and early April are the best times to visit South Korea with the famous cherry blossoms blooming in central regions, including Seoul, Incheon and Daejeon as well as the southern regions such as Busan, Gwangju, Jeonju, and Daegu, where at least 543 coronavirus cases have been reported.

Another Korean expat Yoon Hee, 36, who works as a cabin crew, added: “At the moment, we are extremely worried. We can not go home for vacation and we also cannot invite family and friends to come to Dubai.”

Big concern

“The number of people infected with COVID-19 is increasing and it’s becoming a big concern for a small and metropolitan country like South Korea. A lot of offices are closed and a lot of my friends are working from home,” added the 14-year Dubai resident who is originally from Seoul.

She is also postponing any overseas trip as South Korea is facing a string of travel restrictions in at least 14 countries and territories over the rapid spread of COVID-19.

Yoon is also worried about how long it could take for normal life to return in South Korea. “At the moment, it is better and safer for me and my family to stay in Dubai,” she added.

According to the South Korean consulate general, there are around 13,000 Korean expats in the UAE, with 7,000 of them living and working in Dubai and the northern emirates.

Jiwoo Choi, 36, a Dubai resident of 11 years, said school opening, which is supposed to start in March, has been postponed. “The entry of my niece nursery is also delayed,” she told Gulf News.

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Workers spraying disinfectants at the Seoul railway station Image Credit: AP

“I hope the virus will stop spreading. As an expat, there is nothing much I can do at the moment but to always remind my family and friends to take care of themselves, wear masks and avoid big crowds,” she added.

Jiwoo also praised the Korean government for its transparency in reporting the number of cases. “The government is also fast in detecting the spread of the virus and those who are affected because we have advanced tool kits,” she further noted.

For his part, South Korean Consul General Chun Young Wook told Gulf News in a statement: “The Korean people and government are one in fighting the coronavirus. We strictly follow the general hygiene rules and make every effort to contain its spread. We also endeavor to develop vaccination and medicine. In the end, I do believe that we will prevail over this (crisis).”

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South Korean Consul General Chun Young Wook Image Credit: Gulf News archives

Honeymoon plans ruined

Another UAE resident, T.H. Seong, 45, said she is worried about her family back home but she added there is no cause yet to hit the panic button.

“My family are taking extra precaution – they follow proper hygiene procedures and they avoid huge crowds.”

Seong, however, is concerned that Korean tourism will take a big hit. “Foreign tourists are keeping away from South Korea and Koreans are also not planning to travel abroad.”

Seong said her mother and sister, who are UK residents, are stuck in Korea and could not travel back yet to London.

She added: “The virus scare has even ruined the honeymoon plans of at least 17 sets of Korean newlyweds who were denied entry into Mauritius.”

According to the South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the 34 Korean tourists were quarantined after some of the travelers were suspected to have symptoms of the coronavirus, including fever. Mauritius, however, has not officially announced a travel ban on South Korea.

13,000 Korean expats live in the UAE; 7,000 of them work and reside in Dubai
140,000 South Korean tourists visit or transit in the UAE annually
10,000 Emiratis go to South Korea every year
1,600 South Korean students are currently enrolled in universities and various schools in the UAE
170 Korean companies operating in various industries across the country