A high-speed boat service linking South Korea's port city of Busan and Tsushima, the Japanese island that lies closest to the Korean Peninsula, resumed Saturday after a three-year lull due to the coronavirus.
The restart of the route between South Korea's second-largest city and Hitakatsu port in Tsushima, Nagasaki Prefecture, comes amid growing hopes in both countries for increased travel to Japan's "border island" just under 50 kilometers from Busan.
Two South Korean operators serve the route, mostly on weekends for the time being, with the number of passengers limited to 100 per sailing. Seats on passenger ships departing Busan are fully booked until the end of next month.
"I used to go fishing at least five times a month before the pandemic," said a 63-year-old from Daejeon in the central part of South Korea who boarded a boat from Busan on Saturday morning. "I'm excited about being back for the first time in a long while."
A regular boat service between the two ports began in 1999. With jetfoils entering into use in 2011, linking them by a roughly 70-minute ride, Tsushima's popularity soared.
The island with a population of 30,000 economically benefited as a record 410,000 people visited from South Korea in 2018. But visitors plummeted the following year due to a deterioration in bilateral ties.
The boat service was suspended in April 2020 as coronavirus infections soared globally, dealing a further blow to the island's economy.
Panstar Group, which began serving the Busan-Tsushima route when the route was resumed, hopes to see many people use its service. "Tsushima is a nearby place for the people of Busan," Kim Bo Jung, a senior company official, said.
Islanders, such as Yukihiro Yamada, the 59-year-old owner of a restaurant near Hitakatsu port, also pin their hopes on the resumption of the boat service.
Some local officials are girding themselves for an influx of tourists, in part because of concern it may affect the everyday lives of islanders.
Problems between tourists and locals have previously arisen over cultural and other differences between the two countries.
The Tsushima municipal government intends to consider loosening the limits on the number of passengers while keeping tabs on infection cases.