South Korea retools its 'brand' in drive for more tourists
A two-year 'Visit Korea' program is aimed at getting travelers to conjure lava caves and beaches – not Hyundai cars and North Korea nuclear talks – in weighing a visit to South Korea.
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While the Korean authorities are marketing their country in America and Europe as a gateway to Asia (“we tell them please start your visit to Asia in Korea,” Lee says) they don’t have to be so coy elsewhere.Skip to next paragraph
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In China, for example, where Korean pop music and soap operas are all the rage, “Korea is a quality, must-see destination only two hours away,” boasts Lee.
“Our Chinese market is growing really fast,” he adds. “In [the] future it will be No. 1.”
Jeju is especially popular with Chinese visitors, and while the vast majority of them come for the reasons Gov. Woo Keun-min wants, he acknowledges that last year about 1,000 Chinese took advantage of the island’s tourist-friendly “no visa” policy but then melt into the countryside as illegal, job-seeking immigrants.
“We are stepping up security to deal with the problem,” he says.
The vast majority of visitors, though, many of them arriving on direct flights from Beijing, Shanghai, and three other Chinese cities, tour the scenery (tangerine groves at the foot of snowy-peaked Mount Halla make for a startling juxtaposition), taste the sashimi (raw seaslug, anyone? It is surprisingly crunchy), and do all the things tourists do.
Nowhere else are quite so many volcanoes crammed into one place as on Jeju – the island 45 miles long by 20 miles wide boasts no fewer than 368 of the distinctive bowl-cratered cones in a range of sizes.
One of them is particularly accessible – the crater of the Geomun volcano, where air vents rising from the earth’s core create miniscule micro-climates. When I visited in early February, that meant small patches of green moss standing out in the snow-covered forest. Different trees of the same species standing just a few feet apart will blossom at completely different times, depending on their proximity to one of these vents.
Kim Sang-soo, my guide and the mayor of Sunheul 2-ri, a village at the foot of Geomun, insists that the air in the crater is full of positive ions that energize visitors. There was certainly a spring in my step that I would not have expected as I descended from the two-hour walk through snow.
To protect the volcano’s environment, the local authorities allow only 300 visitors a day, so Sunheul 2-ri’s residents probably would not benefit much from any surge in tourism that might follow Jeju’s coronation as a New Seven Wonder of Nature.
Elsewhere on the island, though, anticipation levels are high. “There will be more foreigners here if we win,” says Hong Hee-ok, proprietor of the “Pumpkin” restaurant in the restored ancient village of Seongup as she tastes the pork and seaweed soup she is serving for breakfast. “That means more business.”
The Korean phone company is offering a special cheap rate for people calling the Swiss phone number at which they can register as many votes as they like for Jeju. “I call six times a day,” Mrs. Hong laughs.