Some 85 Korean travelers were denied entry into the U.S the day before the Atlanta airport unveiled its "Market the Welcome" campaign aimed at making foreign travelers feel more at home.

Eighty-five South Korean nationals were denied entry into the U.S. after arriving at the Atlanta airport Sunday, Nov. 19, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has confirmed to Global Atlanta.

Members of the group, who were traveling on separate Delta Air Lines and Korean Air flights from Seoul, were held overnight at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport while the mixup was investigated.

About half were sent home on Korean Air Monday morning, while others took Delta flights back and faced layovers in other cities after being stranded for 24 hours in Atlanta, according to the Korea Daily newspaper, whose local Atlanta bureau broke the story.

Many of the travelers were reportedly elderly Koreans headed through Atlanta for a meditation retreat.

The Consulate General of Korea was called in by the airport Monday, according to statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tuesday in Seoul, where the incident made national cable news.

The ministry said it had been investigating the incident and had confirmed that the travelers hadn’t been blocked for political reasons, according to the Chosun Ilbo, a major Korean newspaper.

The snafu came at an awkward time for the airport — just one day before it would unveil 29 large posters meant to welcome foreign travelers to Concourse F, the international terminal. The “Market the Welcome” tourism campaign in partnership with Brand USA includes scenic pictures from around Atlanta and Georgia combined with welcoming messages in six languages, including Korean. 

When airport officials said at the launch event that they wanted travelers’ first impressions to be “memorable,” this is likely not what they had in mind. 

Contacted by Global Atlanta, the airport deferred inquiries to CBP, declining to say how its reputation as a welcoming hub could be affected by the incident or comment on protocols for notifying foreign government representatives when such incidents occur.

“Hartsfield-Jackson works with all stakeholders, including federal, state, and local law enforcement, to provide a safe, efficient, and welcoming travel experience for our visitors,” the airport said in a statement. 

The Korean tourists were also stranded just after Delta and Korean Air received U.S. DOT approval for a joint venture that the carriers believe will lead to closer integration, including more codeshare flights and destinations, enhanced frequent flier benefits and easier connections.

Delta, which revived its Atlanta-Seoul nonstop flight in June to complement Korean Air’s service, views this as an isolated incident that shouldn’t change the way it approaches its Korean business. Meanwhile, U.S. CBP says entry requirements for Korean citizens coming to the U.S. remained the same.

It’s still unclear exactly why the travelers weren’t allowed in, and the matter is being investigated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

South Korea is a part of the Visa Waiver Program, a reciprocal arrangement whereby citizens of 38 countries can enter the U.S. for tourism or business purposes for up to 90 days without acquiring a visa. 

Countries participating must have chip-enhanced passports and rejection rates of less than 2 percent before gaining admission into the program. Japan, Korea, Brunei and Taiwan are the only Asian countries that have been able to join.

But border agents retain final discretion about whether to allow individuals into the country, according to a statement provided to Global Atlanta by Rob Brisley, a CBP spokesman at the Port of Entry Atlanta.

CBP said the group was found to be “inadmissible” at the gate but declined to give reasons, citing privacy concerns precluding the agency from revealing personal information on specific cases. 

“CBP officers at Port of Entry Atlanta ensured that the inadmissible foreign passengers were provided food, comfort and support, and worked closely with our airline partners to book their return flights home to South Korea,” the statement read. Delta provided some of the food and drinks and helped arrange return travel for its passengers.

Citing the Korean foreign ministry, some Korean news agencies have said the group was denied entry because they had previously sold produce from an organic farm — violating prohibitions on engaging in commerce while in the U.S. Others speculated that it involved listing an incorrect address.

Korean is one of the multiple languages for which CBP offers interpretation services. Korean interpreters were on hand for the entire ordeal.

The Korean consulate in Atlanta declined to comment on this story, citing privacy concerns.

Corrections/amplifications: The article has been updated to describe more accurately how CBP handles Korean-language interpretation services in Atlanta. 

Japan is also included in the Visa Waiver Program. An earlier version of the story excluded that country. 

A previous version of this article cited an airport figure of 77,000 people coming through customs in Atlanta per year. CBP says that number is low, an assertion which the airport confirmed. CBP is working to get an updated figure. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...