▲ An artist’s impression of a new international airport proposed for Jeju. Photos courtesy Jeju International Airport
When an underwater railway tunnel was just a distant possibility, the prevailing sentiment in the Jeju community was pleasant excitement mixed with a dose of skepticism. Now that the project has earned heft and reality with congressional budget approval of 1 billion won for a first feasibility study, the initial excitement on Jeju is quickly being replaced with growing anxiety and restlessness.
The biggest concern of Jeju transportation officials is that the tunnel would severely undermine all justifications for building a new international airport, for which the Jeju provincial government has for years been lobbying Seoul hard for the budget. Once a tunnel was up and running, KTX bullet trains would attract nearly 78 percent of those who currently travel by air to Jeju, according to the Korea Transport Institute, the government think-tank that first proposed the underwater tunnel early last year.
Jeju International Airport is currently the second busiest airport in Korea after Incheon International Airport, but with more than two-thirds of domestic travelers potentially switching to KTX trains, Jeju would suddenly find itself left with excess airport capacity, hence significantly weakening the merit of building a new airport.
Jeju officials have long envisioned an ultra-modern airport complete with two sets of runways, where planes from all over the world could take off and land 24 hours a day - a feature they believe would greatly enhance the accessibility of Jeju for international visitors, and true to the vision of Jeju as a “Free International City.” “We are not really against the underwater bullet train project to Jeju,” a senior Jeju official was quoted by a local daily as saying, “but the new international airport should be built first before the construction of a bullet train link with the mainland can start.”
Korail hinted recently, however, that KTX trains will soon link key local cities directly with Incheon International Airport, whisking away travelers from the doorstep of Korea’s international hub to their final destinations. If this happens, overseas travelers could transit at Incheon to KTX bullet trains for a two-and-half hour train ride to Jeju, undermining again the need for building another airport on the island.
Many welcome the bullet train project, arguing that the under-water rail tunnel would mark a turning point for the Jeju economy. A high-speed rail link to Seoul would trigger a consolidation of Jeju with the mega-economy of Seoul, some predict, opening an entirely new array of economic opportunities for the island. If that scenario ever comes true, achieving a target of 10 million visitors to Jeju each year would not be a distant dream anymore.
Economic concerns aside, one thing is quite evident about the potential impact of an underwater rail tunnel: Having trains running to Jeju would slash Jeju’s global carbon footprint dramatically, as the tunnel would inevitably reduce the number of flights from the mainland to Jeju. The Gimpo, Seoul, and Jeju route was ranked the world’s busiest city-pair in a recent survey by OAG Travel Service, with a daily average of 159 flights. Air flight has been notorious the world over for its disproportionate contribution to the explosion of global greenhouse gases.
Jeju officials nervous about the potential delay or even a complete halt to the new airport project can take solace in one positive prospect: They may be able to highlight the dramatic impact of the underwater rail tunnel in reducing greenhouse gases when they greet thousands of international delegates attending the 2012 World Conservation Congress to be held in Jeju.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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