Just one quarter of the 100,000 Chinese soccer fans predicted to go to South Korea for China's World Cup debut have bought tickets so far, local travel agents and state media said on Monday.
But that would still be the largest mass exodus of Chinese tourists from a country that has only let ordinary citizens travel abroad in large numbers since the early 1990s and still maintains strict control on overseas travel.
Chinese fans are expected to far outnumber those from their opponents in Group C of the first round -- Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey -- many of whom cannot afford the long and expensive trip to Asia.
Only about 1,000 Brazilians are expected to make the 18,000 km (11,250 mile) trip to Seoul, which will cost them up to $10,000 for an all-inclusive package.
By contrast, Chinese fans, keen to watch their national side in its first ever World Cup finals after 44 years of failing to qualify, can buy a return flight and a ticket for under $500.
An executive at the state-run China International Sports Travel Service (CISTS), which handles sales of all World Cup tickets allotted to China by FIFA, told Reuters it had sold most of its 15,749 tickets.
"Except for seven or eight hundred which we kept for emergency use, the rest have been sold out," he said.
Several other domestic travel agencies, which bought tickets directly from South Korean agents or competition organisers, had sold another 10,000 tickets so far, state media said.
China was originally allotted a combined total of 10,749 tickets for the three first round games, all to be sold by CISTS, which is run by the sports ministry.
But World Cup organisers granted China another 5,000 after Chinese fans complained that the quota was too small and CISTS was abusing its monopoly by overcharging.
Tens of thousands more Chinese were expected to buy tickets direct from South Korean agents or on the black market, but many have been put off by high prices, which had sky-rocketed to as much as 10,000 yuan by March.
"The best estimate of Chinese fans to go to South Korea for the three Chinese matches would be 25,000," the mass-circulation Football Daily quoted another travel agent as saying.
CISTS wraps World Cup tickets into package tours including return flights and hotel accommodation. Overland travel is blocked by isolationist North Korea.
Package prices range from 5,000 yuan ($600), including one match and one night's accommodation, to 27,000 yuan for three matches plus luxury hotels, the CISTS executive said.
At least one travel agent in the northeastern city of Tianjin is offering a whirlwind tour, including one match and a same-day return flight, at around 4,000 yuan, state media have said.
But that is still a fortune for most people in China where average urban income is just $758 per year.
Some less affluent Chinese fans say they will wait until the last minute before China's first match against Costa Rica on June 4, hoping to snap up tickets at bargain prices.
South Korea's World Cup organising committee (KOWOC) said last month it still had more than 265,000 World Cup tickets left for games in its 10 venue cities, prompting concern about a lack of demand.
Of those, 6,081 were for the three matches involving China.
KOWOC has since been trying to persuade South Koreans to give up their tickets to Chinese fans desperate to see their side's first appearance in the finals.
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