Bleak, volcanic, and windswept, Jeju island was once known as the “island of three misfortunes,” namely, high mountains, unproductive soil and harsh winds. This stark triad made life hard for the people of Jeju.
The island was a favorite place to send political dissidents during the Joseon Dynasty, but it was not a vacation destination. The once unforgiving wasteland has come a long way to be renamed a “world natural heritage site,” a natural asset to be preserved. Today, more than a million visitors a year come to Jeju, largely drawn by its natural beauty.
Jeju’s Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes earned UNESCO’s World Natural Heritage Site status in 2007, drawing tourists, scholars, researchers, and foreign media to the island. Honored were Mt. Halla, South Korea’s highest peak, towering over the island; the fortress-like Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone, rising out of the ocean; and Geomunoreum lava tubes, known as the finest lava tube system of caves in the world.
On June 27, 2007, in New Zealand, the 31st Session of the World Heritage Committee unanimously added Jeju Volcanic Island and Lava Tubes to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, following the recommendations of the IUCN (The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources), which is the technical advisory body on natural heritage. UNESCO deemed the sites exceptional for their “outstanding aesthetic beauty” and “significant academic value to geologists.”
Jeju lava tubes called some of best in the world While Mt. Halla is the most visible natural feature on Jeju, it was the underground that particularly drew rave reviews from the nominating panel, saying “the lava tubes are believed to have world-class importance in that they have long distance, complicated passage structures, well-preserved lava configuration, the various and magnificent secondary structures, easy accessibility and high scientific and educational values.”
The lava tube system, located in the northeast part of the island, includes five caves, Goemunoreum, Manjang, Gimnyeongsa, Bangdui and Youngcheon.
In the report submitted to UNESCO in May, 2007, IUCN stated, “The Goemunoreum lava tube system displays unique decorations adorning the roofs and floors, and dark-colored lava walls, partially covered by a mural of carbonate deposits.”
The nomination of Jeju’s lava tube caves was supported by the Commission on Volcanic Caves of the International Union of Speleology, considered the world’s authoritative scientific body on volcanic caves. They consider the lava caves to be “of the highest international ranking.”
There are similar lava caves around the world, but Jeju’s are considered to be particularly well preserved.
Mt. Halla is rare in the volcano world The IUCN further stated, “Mount Halla, with its array of textures and colors through the changing seasons, waterfalls, display of multi-shaped rock formations and columnar-jointed cliffs, and the towering summit with its lake-filled crater, further adds to the scenic and aesthetic appeal.
Mt. Halla, or Hallasan, is considered to be a rare example of a shield volcano built on a continental tectonic plate. Only 10 percent of the world’s volcanoes fall into this category, and Hallasan earns further distinction by being located over a “hot spot” in a marine environment on a stable continental plate margin. While other volcanoes have one of these elements, very few have all of them.
The commission noted, “In its tectonic and environmental setting the Jeju volcano is therefore globally rare.” In addition, the Seongsan Ilchulbong tuff cone bears testimony to the history of ancient underwater volcanoes. While Oahu’s Diamond Head, rising above Waikiki Beach, is probably the best known example of a tuff cone, Seongsan is considered important because wind and waves have eroded its outer structures, leaving its internal structures and stratifications exposed, and easier to study.
“This enables the eruptive process to be understood in ways not possible elsewhere,” the IUCN report said.
Designation is a boon to island The World Natural Heritage designation has far-reaching effects on the industries of Jeju as well. It has brought increases in the number of visitors and international conferences, as well as an increase in the sales of fresh farm, fishery, and livestock products, contributing to spurring its local economy. With the increase in the number of visitors and traffic to the UNESCO endowed sites, there is, however, a concern about degradation of the sites. Jeju UNESCO Task Force, consisting of experts from various fields, is in charge of managing those sites, particularly to address issues of visitation and protection of the values.
The task force is currently seeking to win another honor by 2010, a UNESCO World Geopark. The candidate areas for the geopark includes Mt. Halla, Jusang Jeoli (Pillar-shaped, naturally sculpted cliffs), and Samgumburi crater. Being included in the global network of geoparks will put the island on par with the world’s most famous destinations. To be a UNESCO Global Geopark, the region must not only be beautiful but also possess high geological, biological, archeological, historical, and cultural values.
In addition to wind and rocks, Jeju has these in abundance.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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