▲ The eco party allowed both children and adults to experience Jeju's nature Photo by Jeju Tourism Organisation
Eco-tourism is a difficult concept to pin down, and it means different things to different people.
For some it is camping out in thick rainforests to the echo of jungle sounds. Others equate it with listening — from the warmth of a cozy cottage — to the sound of cocks crowing on an organic farm.
Characteristically, Jeju has its own take on it. Eco-tourism on Jeju usually indicates low-impact, village-based tourism that gets closer to the island’s natural and cultural heritage.
To foster growth in this area, between July and October Jeju province sponsored four “Eco Parties” at different villages around the island.
Each party was organized by villagers alongside the Jeju Tourism Organization. With events already being held at Yerae-ri, Harye-ri, and Seonheul-ri, the fourth and final party of the year was held at Jeoji-ri, Hangyeong-myeon, on Oct 29.
As we stood in a windy west Jeju field, Dr Lee Sung-eun, director of the JTO’s Community-based Tourism Department, explained why the events were needed.
▲ Enjoying nature Photo by Jeju Tourism Organisation
“These events help introduce people to this kind of tourism. The general public thinks that ecotourism is a difficult concept, but it is actually very easy. There are three main principles to ecotourism: economical, social, and environmental sustainability,” he said.
These are values Jeju is looking to foster as it updates its outdated tourism infrastructure for the Free Independent Tourist (FIT) era, moving away from a reliance on tours which move by chartered buses to set itineraries.
Adapting Jeju’s tourism infrastructure to better serve FITs not only means getting more tourists out into Jeju’s villages, but also ensuring that more villagers are involved in Jeju tourism. Lee said that this also requires a paradigm change.
“Residents used to think, ‘My village is very beautiful, but it is not my business to get involved in tourism.’ So we are trying to connect local villagers with tourists to promote the beauty of the natural environment, and create business opportunities,” he said.
From the start the the mixture of short walks, local foods and entertainment has been received well. Over 200 people applied for the 50 spots available at the first event in July, and every event since has also been fully booked.
Although the late-October wind cut into the expensive hiking gear on display, the warmth was tangible from both the bonfires and the welcoming villagers.
▲ Kim Chang-yeol's gallery Photo by Jeju Tourism Organisation
As at other Eco Parties, scores of children ran wild in the fields, giving the event a youthful zest in the grounds of the Green Farm Experience Site.
Lim Eun-suk (45) from Jeju City said that it was a really precious experience for the kids as they were able to “directly experience the Jeju environment with their own bodies.”
Volunteer Jin Hyun-ho (18), of Jeju City said that not only was the event about fun, but also getting people out in the fresh air of the countryside.
“We can appreciate the beautiful Jeju nature that we cannot see in the city, and the air quality out here is also much fresher. It’s also great to see all these children here playing and just having fun,” he said.
Kang Hyun-woo (38) of Jeju City shared similar sentiments saying she could see her son’s “awareness change” as they trekked through the local gotjawal forest and up the local volcanic cone, Jeoji Oreum.
Being Jeoji-ri, which boasts Jeoji Artists Village, there was also a cultural twist with a visit to the newly-opened gallery of Kim Chang-yeol, one of Korea’s leading artists.
▲ The villagers served up a local specialty, soybean porridge Photo by Jeju Tourism Organisation
I was in need of revitalization, and I was brought back to life by a pungmul wind percussion performance by the village women.
With growling bellies, the kids then dived into the embers of the bonfires, digging out their buried treasure: baked sweet potatoes.
After a bit more of a dance, the villagers then served up the local specialty: soybean porridge.
Being made from the first soybean crop of the season harvested from the surrounding fields, the porridge was given extra heart by the villagers own hands: “Sonmat,” as Koreans say.
This was followed by gireumtteok, or sweet fried rice cake, which gave everyone satisfyingly sticky fingers.
This is the second event I have attended, and both times it was the fresh local produce that stood out. It is almost impossible to find such delicacies alone without connections with the village grandmothers.
Reflecting on the success of the event, Jeoji Village Head Yang Won-bo said:
“We all put in a great effort to matchmake and bring together Jeju’s nature and Jeoji-ri’s culture and art. It has increased villagers’ interest in this area and given them confidence.”
Ko Je-ryang, president of the Jeju Ecotourism Association, summed up her experience:
“From the first to the last party, I couldn’t imagine the positive participation of villagers. It has been wonderful. This is the last party of the year, but next year we will be holding more events with even more villagers across the island.”
After the success of this year’s pilot run, expectations will be even higher next year.
Visit www.ijto.or.kr for the latest information on tourism events on Jeju.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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