With Nine Months to Go, PyeongChang Winter Olympics Faces Possible Room Shortage

The 2018 Winter Olympics bid promised a compact Games, but a lack of accomodations may force fans to stay far and wide.

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Apr 26 2017, 1:30pm

Republic of Korea/Flickr

Two weeks ago, Reddit user OlympicFan2010, whose real name is Christine, posted to the Olympics subreddit under a thread titled "Difficulties finding PyeongChang 2018 accommodations."

"I've been to the Olympics before and I've never had so many difficulties trying to find someplace [sic] to stay for the games," she wrote. In a private message, she later told VICE Sports that she lives in Cleveland, Ohio and attended the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver—as her Reddit username suggests—and had a much easier experience booking a room back then.

Despite having more lead time for PyeongChang, Christine found herself quickly running out of options. Travel websites weren't showing anything available near the main Olympic venues other than prohibitively expensive AirBnBs charging thousands of dollars a night. She already had her tickets, but was becoming concerned about whether she would be able to find anywhere to stay.

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Christine's dilemma is not unique. Other users echoed her concerns, and many more people could be facing the same issue in the next few months. Organizers have been scrambling to provide more housing, recently agreeing to construct ten new hotels and announcing a partnership with Airbnb to address "an accommodations shortage in advance of the Winter Games."

When PyeongChang was selected to be the host for the 2018 Games, the International Olympic Committee didn't seemed concerned about having enough rooms. Instead, it praised a "very compact" accommodation plan. In 2011, the IOC's evaluation of the bid described "a total of 76,000 existing rooms within a 50 km radius of PyeongChang," which it deemed "sufficient" for accommodating the IOC, media, and all other "client groups," as well as spectators and visitors.

It's hard to square this figure with the acknowledged room shortage today. PyeongChang is a small town of some 30,000 people located in a mostly rural area of Gangwon province, which has a total population of a little more than 1.5 million. For comparison, Seoul, which is located roughly 95 miles east of Pyeongchang, is a city of roughly 10 million and, as of 2013, had a hotel capacity of about 30,000 rooms.

A spokesperson for the IOC told VICE Sports, "Although PyeongChang has a much smaller population than Seoul, it is a major tourist area that includes several ski resorts in the surrounding area and a number of summer resorts on the coast, hence its volume of rooms."

A new high speed rail—set to open at the end of the year—will connect Incheon International Airport and Seoul with the Winter Olympics. But whether that's a sustainable answer to hotel shortages is yet to be seen.

Regardless of whether or not the 76,000 figure is a realistic representation of hotel capacity in the area, with nine months until the Opening Ceremony, the Olympics are now firmly within the time frame that travel booking sites release rooms. Yet rooms simply aren't available. As of this writing, Kayak doesn't provide any bookable hotels in the region, and Booking.com has three rooms available within a 20-mile radius of Gangneung, the city hosting the "coastal cluster" of indoor event venues.

Vice president and head of communications at Booking.com Leslie Cafferty told VICE Sports, "In Pyeongchang, Gangneung and Jeongseon (the three main areas where the 2018 Winter Olympic Games are taking place), Booking.com currently works with over 100 properties. As would be expected, there has been a great deal of interest in these properties on Booking.com and we have seen many of these properties get booked already—with remaining availability being somewhat limited." But, Cafferty added, their local team is "working closely with our current partners as well as continually exploring new partnerships" to increase availability.

When asked about the accommodation situation as it stands, the PyeongChang host committee told VICE Sports that there are 42,984 rooms in total within a 90-kilometer radius of the host city for spectators, although they didn't say how many of those are vacant.

The shortage doesn't come as a surprise to the hosts and the IOC. In March of last year, the IOC Coordination Commission chair Gunilla Lindberg said that the "situation is not as expected" and that five new hotels were being built, providing "up to 1,000 rooms" in the two clusters to ease concerns (Lindberg forwarded VICE Sports's questions on the issue to an IOC spokesman, who echoed the host committee's statements).

The host committee provided VICE Sports a list of 10 hotels currently under construction with 3,765 rooms total, to be completed by December. Not all of the new hotels will be available to spectators—some of the rooms will be allocated to meet the 21,254-room requirement for IOC's "client groups"—but as of now, none of the 10 hotels show up in any of the major travel search engines. In addition, Google searches for each hotel yield no relevant results. This isn't to imply the hotels don't exist—they're still under construction and transliteration from Korean characters to English and other Romantic languages often makes searching for specific hotels difficult—but it certainly makes booking these hotels a challenge for non-Korean speakers. The host committee says it's up to the individual hotels to list themselves on travel booking sites and do their own marketing and promotion.

The Gangwon Province tourism board has an app available called Tour Gangwon with more comprehensive hotel information. As of now, the official PyeongChang 2018 website doesn't link to or mention the app, and neither do the official Gangwon or PyeongChang tourism websites. For now, the app is essentially an information portal, but will be updated in June with more functionality. In order to use it, you'll have to grant the app permission to access your photos, videos, locations, texts, and phone.

Map of the mountain cluster for the 2018 Winter Olympics. Image via Republic of Korea Flickr.

Even though Seoul was not part of the host committee's bid, it is clearly going to be a huge factor in how people experience the Winter Games. After all, Korea is constructing a high speed rail, set to be completed just before the Games, that will connect Incheon International Airport (all the way on the western coast) and Seoul (slightly inland from Incheon) with the two Olympic clusters, traversing the entire east-west span of the country. In theory, one could get from Seoul to the mountain venues in about an hour on the high speed rail, and the coastal cluster in an hour and a half. Hardly ideal, but manageable.

The problems with staying in Seoul—aside from the absence of a true winter Olympic city vibe—are twofold. First, the train's cost has yet to be announced. According to the host committee, the price is usually based on distance, will be set by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, and Transport, and won't be decided until September at the earliest. An official Olympics ticket distributor, Kings Sports Group out of Australia, posted on a GameBids.com forum that they were told the price will be $45 USD each way, which, if true, would total $1,260 over two weeks (the host committee did not confirm or deny these figures).

Second, even if fans can afford the train, there might not be any open seats. The host committee told VICE Sports that 35 trains will run daily from Seoul to the Olympic clusters, with a capacity of 410 people per train. That means the total daily capacity via the high speed rail will be fewer than 15,000 people per day. The hockey center and ice arena alone have a combined capacity of 22,000.

This uncertainty is what led Christine ultimately to rule out setting up base in Seoul. Instead, she used Skype to call the tourism hotline linked on the PyeongChang website; the site itself linked out to a few local hotels, including the InterContinental Alpensia where the IOC members will be staying, but all of them were completely booked. On her fifth try to contact them, Christine reached someone from the hotline, who proceeded called the hotels in Alpensia. As Christine had already found, there were no vacancies, and the hotline said that was all they could do.

A month and a half after her search began, Christine managed to fortuitously book a ski condo in Alpensia on booking.com. It's hardly a reliable outcome for other Olympic ticket-holders, but it worked for her.

Christine doesn't blame the organizers for the lack of hotels. She knows PyeongChang is a rural area, unlike Vancouver, where she had less trouble finding a place. Still, she wishes the PyeongChang website helped people find available accommodations; the Vancouver website linked out only to hotels that still had vacancies. That was how she found a bed and breakfast in Vancouver, on much shorter notice, before the 2010 Games.

While it may seem like comparing Vancouver with PyeongChang is apples to oranges, they're actually remarkably similar. For both Olympics, the mountain clusters (Whistler and PyeongChang) sit approximately 80-100 miles from a major metropolitan center (Vancouver and Seoul). The difference is that the Vancouver Games held all the indoor events in the city itself, while the PyeongChang Games are holding them in Gangneung, a small city with relatively little hotel capacity.

You might ask why the indoor events aren't in Seoul, and why we aren't looking forward to Seoul 2018, where there would be plenty of hotels and the mountain events would be an express bus or high speed rail away. While that would certainly make the Olympics far more convenient for everyone, that was never the point of the bid. This was always PyeongChang's bid—or, more precisely, Gangwon's. It was about boosting the region's tourist industry, connecting it with the capital, and making it a winter sports destination for Korea. The concern is not where fans will stay for the Olympics, but who will come afterwards.

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