Since Olle’s inception, thousands of people, from near and far, have trekked the solitary paths. With sixteen connecting routes that total 270km, one can walk until their heart’s content. Photo by Kang Kil Soon
For over a thousand years, El Camino de Santiago, the ancient path running from Southern France to Northern Spain has attracted countless numbers of pilgrims from Europe and Asia.
Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian novelist, wrote "The Pilgrimage" in 1987, inspired by a walk along the 800km long path. Today, El Camino de Santiago or St. James’ Way is taken every year by over 100,000 visitors from all over the world, who are searching for a spiritual healing and rejuvenation.
But who would have imagined that two thousand years after St. James first walked the path, his footsteps would inspire tens of thousands of Korean to explore their own sacred island?
After 23 years toiling in various newsrooms, Suh Myung-sook, then editor-in-chief of OhmyNews, a pioneering Korean citizen journalism site, decided in September 2006 that she had had enough as a newswoman. After a month of preparation, she flew to Spain and started her own 36-day pilgrimage along El Camino de Santiago.
While walking the trail, she met Paulo Coelho, who was then filming a documentary series about El Camino de Santiago. She also met a British girl she remembers as 'Henney' near the end of the journey. Suh and Henney were chatting about how great it was for them to walk the ancient path one night when Henney suggested what came as a revelation to Suh; if the journey was so great for Koreans, why not build your own El Camino de Santiago when you go back?
Suh recalled how beautiful and serene Jeju was when she was growing up on the island years ago. She came back to Jeju and explored “Olle,” the narrow local pathways formed by low-rising black stone walls snaking along hundreds of bucolic seaside towns. Suh realized that by restoring old paths and creating new roads for hikers to explore, she could easily build trail routes in the island that would resemble those in Spain.
The first trail route was opened to the public in September, 2007. Since then, Suh and her Jeju Olle exploration team have created a combined total of 274km of walking trails on Jeju Island. They have even enlisted soldiers training in the local marine camp to connect the seaside paths, previously broken by rocky terrain. Currently, sixteen trail routes have been opened to walkers and the trail exploration team is still working on new ones.
Jeju Olle has proved to be an instant hit among Korean hikers who have been looking for an alternative way to enjoy the island. In its first year, some 3,000 hikers visited Jeju to explore the Olle trails, but the number soon exploded to 30,000 in the 2nd year of the program's inception. From January to September of this year, over 200,000 hikers are believed to have walked the Olle trails.
In 1970s and 1980s, when Jeju was Korea’s Hawaii, Koreans would visit Jeju for their honeymoons and revisit the island a few years later to commemorate their first visit. Hopping over some well-known tourist destinations by black cab limos or tour buses was the most preferred mode of enjoying the island back then. With the exception of a few hikers or cyclists who were willing to venture out to the far corners of the island, Jeju had remained one of the many well-manicured, but uninspiring tourist sites in Korea.
As Korean couples increasingly started to choose oversees resorts for their honeymoons during the 1990s, Jeju gradually lost its lure as the top destination. The rent-a-car boom compensated for the lost honeymoon traffic to a degree as other tourists started to drive around the island looking for some hidden wonders of Jeju.
Fortunately for Suh and her Jeju Olle team, Jeju’s tourism industry saw another revolutionary leap in its infrastructure beginning in the mid 2000s: the budget airline.
The Olle trails offer a rare opportunity to experience Jeju’s natural beauty without the aide of guides or tour buses. These roads, for the most part, were once abandoned, but Suh Myung-sook changed all that with the opening of the first Olle trail in Sept. 2007. Left, photo by Kang Kil Soon. Right, photo by Veronica Fortune
On the Seoul-Jeju route, long dominated by the duopoly of Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, Jeju Air and other no-frills airlines started to offer much cheaper tickets. The price of a return ticket from Seoul to Jeju plummeted from as high as 200,000 won to 40,000 won (about US$40) within a year after the launch of the service, crumbling the psychological barriers to Jeju for ordinary fliers. Now, no longer only a destination for honeymoons or once-in-a-life-time trips, but a scenic island perpetually perfected for a snap weekend excursion.
Thanks, in part, to the blockbuster success of the Olle trails, the number of annual visitors to Jeju passed the 5 million mark this October, a month ahead of the schedule, despite the growing fear over the global swine flu pandemic.
And Olle is wining the hearts of Jeju natives as well. Whereas traditional tourists spent their travel budget in the big name hotels and resorts owned mostly by mainlanders, the money Olle hikers are spending is literally trickling down to the bottom of the Jeju economy.
Walking along the 16 Olle trail routes, hikers can easily spot ‘welcome’ signs posted by hundreds of local mom-and-pop stores and restaurants. For the first time in the history of Jeju tourism, tourists from the mainland are being truly welcomed by the Jeju natives.
Three years after she was first lured to El Camino de Santiago, Suh is now dreaming of attracting pilgrims of the world to Jeju, making the island an Asian center of global eco-tourism. Can it happen? Judging from the initial reaction of some expat communities in Korea, the answer seems to be 'yes, maybe.'
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