Restaurants, cafes and clubs in Seoul's popular nightlife district of Itaewon seemed to be on a smooth road to recovery at last after years of pandemic disruptions – before Saturday. But its hopes of a quick revival were wrecked in minutes as a surge among tens of thousands celebrating Halloween in its narrow streets crushed more than 150 people to death.
The neighbourhood – once the realm of expats and American soldiers on R&R – has transformed into a culturally diverse and trendy hub beloved of locals and visitors alike in recent years. Its “Brooklyn-style” gentrification has brought in global brands, including Gucci and Lululemon flagship stores.
Boosting its unique charm was 2020’s hit TV series “Itaewon Class”, which was set in the neighbourhood, and the relocation of the president's office nearby in May this year.
But the country's Covid-19 restrictions saw a mass shuttering of Itaewon businesses from 2020 until the end of last year.
So expectation was running high for the first “maskless” Halloween party in three years, with many local business owners convinced the immensely popular festivities would get them out of the woods.
However, business sentiment was destroyed immediately after Saturday’s deadly crowd surge. At least 154 people were killed and 103 injured in the narrow and hilly alleyways around the area’s landmark Hamilton Hotel.
Out of respect for the dead and/or fear following the crush, the usually bustling streets of Itaewon are likely to remain empty for some time.
Businesses in Itaewon are closing for a two-day mourning period, according to police and local vendors.
“Some stores have already stopped operations. Whether the temporary closure will extend depends on how the situation unfolds,” said one police officer, who wished to remain anonymous.
The Itaewon Special Tourism Zone Association, an organisation of business owners in the area, reportedly sent an emergency message urging members to temporarily operations out of respect to the victims.
As of Sunday morning, several restaurants, cafes and clothing stores were shuttered with signs reading “may they rest in peace” on their windows.
The closures were voluntary and some businesses were open as usual, but onlookers worried that the latest fiasco may lead to another prolonged downturn for an area already feeling the pinch from pandemic disruption and inflation.
Park, 41, who runs a franchise coffee shop across from the stampede site, said “there has been no disaster like this in the neighbourhood over the past few years. My store is closed today.”
In fact, the stampede was the second-worst accident in South Korea’s history, after the 2014 Sewol ferry disaster that killed 306 people.
According to state-run real estate data provider Korea Real Estate Board, the vacancy rate at commercial properties in Itaewon surged to an average of 30 per cent at the pandemic peak of end-2020. But the figure showed signs of recovery, dropping to some 7 per cent last year when social distancing rules were relaxed.
South Korea has declared a week of national mourning until Saturday, asking local businesses and authorities to cancel Halloween festivals, events and parades.
“I don’t think I’ll be able to dine or meet with friends in Itaewon for some time,” Lee Ji-soo, a 32-year old said.
“It will remind me too much of the accident.”
The Korea Herald
Asia News Network