Looking out over the harbour at the end of a long summer, at the glittering cruise ships rolling out towards the horizon, at passengers jets alighting and departing in unbroken series, it is hard to believe that Jeju Island was ever little known.
The journey from far-flung province to tourist treasure has been long, though one recently accelerated by a “triple crown” of UNESCO accreditations and a New7Wonders of Nature designation, serving to highlight the island’s immense natural value.
Rewinding a couple of decades gives insight into how far Jeju Island has come. By the mid-1990s, visitors to Jeju had hit almost 4 million annually. By and large, however, it was Koreans who were coming in droves, and they continued to do so, visits increasing by another million over the next decade. Meanwhile, international footfall stagnated. Jeju Island was not getting the recognition it deserved as a world-class tourism destination.
Recognition came in another form when, in 2002, a large swathe of the island was designated by UNESCO, an agency of the UN, as a Biosphere Reserve. The protected zone initially centered on the dormant volcano, Halla, towering 1950 meters above sea-level. Thousands of hikers head for its slopes every season, benefiting from well-maintained trails to take in breathtaking views over the island, weather dependant.
Reserve status was an important step in Jeju Island's path towards sustainable tourist development, expressing a commitment on the part of the Korean administration towards the conservation of diversity. In 2010 the Korean Government announced that the reserve was to be expanded across much of the island in core, buffer and transition zones, including surrounding islets such as Beomseom (Tiger Island), a popular spot for fishing and diving.
Jeju Island’s second coronation took place in July 2007 when it was inscribed in UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage list. Three geological marvels enabled it to meet the criteria: the Geomunoreum lava tube system, perhaps the most outstanding example of a subterranean lava formation in the world, the Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone, a spectacular fortress-like feature rising out of the ocean on the east side of the island, and Mt. Halla, a paradise for a variety of wild species and tourists alike.
The prestige attached to inclusion on the World Natural Heritage list has helped to build momen-tum, not to mention funding, within the local administration and scientific community towards the goal of sustainable tourism on Jeju Island. The effects of this are both tangible and, just as signif-icantly, intangible.
Projects in the years following selection included the reopening of the Donnaeko Trail on Mt. Halla and the renovation of the Geomunoreum trekking route. Perhaps more importantly, however, the continued attention and industry put into research and raising awareness have helped to form an ideological firewall around environmental issues on Jeju Island. At both local and global levels it is rare for actions that might harm the island’s natural ecosystems to go unopposed within the core conservation areas.
Jeju’s network of hiking trails known as Jeju Olle was originally inspired by the religiously significant route skirting the Spanish side of the Bay of Biscay and, for many, the experience of Jeju’s south coast is the natural equivalent to the spiritual ecstasy of Europe’s pilgrims. It is appropriate then that Jeju’s inclusion in the Global Geopark Network on Oct. 4, 2010, as well as falling on the usual triad of Mount Halla, Sunrise Peak, and Geomunoreum, includes tuff rings, geological artifacts and the Cheonjiyeon waterfall, all linked by trails to the west of Seogwipo City.
A mammoth lava dome rising high over the ocean, Mt. Sanbang is perhaps the most beloved of those seeking spiritual nourishment. Its western edifice is the site of a large temple and, climbing upwards, devotees and the simply curious alike can visit the Sanbanggulsa Grotto, a cave-temple located in the side of the mountain. The Biosphere designation, strongly supported by local citizens, is intended to foster engagement and coordination with civil society: a bottom-up approach to developing ecotourism, rather than imposing from above. A task force attached to the Global Geopark desig-nation has worked to establish a visitors’ center and information guides to serve tourists.
Jeju’s star had not yet stopped rising. The next crowning achievement came on Nov. 12, 2011, when the Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation confirmed that Jeju was a New7Wonders of Nature winner along with the Amazon in Brazil, Halong Bay in Vietnam, Iguazu Falls in Argentina, Komodo National Park in Indonesia, Puerto Princesa Underground River in the Philippines and Table Mountain in South Africa.
The worldwide poll and subsequent swarm of publicity meant that Jeju was finally where local people felt it deserved to be. Initial projections suggested the gong would bring 1.2 trillion won of economic benefits per year through tourism.
Two years later and records have been smashed for 2013, with the herlading of the 10-million-tourist era. The jump in international footfall has led to major infrastructure developments of benefit to tourists across the island.
To all observers of the last decade, Jeju has been in the ascendancy. The UNESCO “triple crown” and New7Wonders tag have certainly brought about increased accessibility and awareness of Jeju’s assets. Though it remains to be seen whether such developments can keep to the spirit of UNESCO’s charter, they have highlighted the prestige brought by these international gongs to the Jeju brand.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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