▲ Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong) is an instantly recognizable landmark for all those who visit or live on Jeju Island. Photo courtesy Jeju Special Self-Governing Province
For most visitors to Jeju Island, the journey to Sunrise Peak (Seongsan Ilchulbong) will be the longest of all the trips to a tourist hotspot. The over-turned-bottle-top-like peak rises on the approach and as the road wends its way towards Seongsan, the imposing formation sets itself on the horizon. It is reward enough to banish memories of the 90-minute bus ride from Jeju City.
The 5,000-year-old tuff cone’s looming imposition on the south-eastern coast of Jeju prompted locals to fancy more than Mother Nature’s hand at work. The village, Seongsan, or Castle Mount, became revered as a holy site, as the peak perennially stood guard over the remote community.
Reverence has continued to the modern day, but spiritualism has been superseded by scientific rationalism, as guardianship passed from the heavens to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization. In 2007, Sunrise Peak became a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site and three years on, it remains at the top of visitors’ itineraries.
The peak’s enigmatic nature cannot be captured through figures alone, but the sum of its 99 rim crags, 90 meters depth, 600 meters diameter and area of 377,872 square meters equal something unique in the world of geology.
Even seasoned environmentalists are left impressed, such as Brazilian director of tourism Ricardo Moesch.
“Places like this really put people’s lives in perspective,” Moesch said. “We can see just how small life really is in the bigger picture.”
The value of UNESCO status was evident in the Brazilian’s mere presence, as he accompanied a group of experts visiting Jeju from an ecotourism symposium in Seoul that was organized by the East Asian Federation of Ecological Societies. Moesch felt more could be done to fully exploit the potential of Sunrise Peak.
▲ Sunrise Peak is a favorite spot for Jeju residents at the start of each new year. Photo by Kang Bong Su
“We need more facilities to cater for the large number of visitors here. The trail is too small and there are no local guides. It would be nice to get more of an appreciation for the local haenyeo [diving women] and fishermen’s way of life.”
As the trail rises up the peak, visitors can see along the north and down the west of the coast. Small fishing vessels bob in harbors and, if lucky, a glimpse might be caught of a ducking and diving haenyeo. These all add to the mystique of the site, but Seoul National University Professor of Forest Science, Kim Seong-Il, also with the symposium, stressed that the value of the Seongsan area lay in its geology. As a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, he lobbied UNESCO for the inclusion of Jeju on the World Natural Heritage List.
“The reason for Sunrise Peak’s inclusion is because its value is not just local or national, but universal,” he said. “I prepared the report that was sent to UNESCO and stressed how Jeju’s 500,000 years of history reveal the story of its own birth. This is why the eco-tourism symposium visited Jeju, as it holds the most potential for the sector in all of Korea.”
Standing at the bottom of Sunrise Peak it is easy to see, and hear, the effects of the UNESCO designation. Chinese groups have risen exponentially in recent years, eclipsing the Japanese as the main foreign visitors to Jeju. With an additional rise in visitors from the Korean mainland, there is an increasing need to provide facilities which reflect the growth in visitor numbers. Mexican ecotourism expert Hector Ceballos-Lascurain was clear about where he believes the priorities should lie.
“Local authorities need to develop strategic plans for development on the island,” he said. “It is clear from my short time here that there has been little environmentally sensitive planning in the development of the island. There is a lot of potential here, but people need a more natural experience.”
Maybe it is with these words of caution that Jeju has matured from a new-kid-on-the-UNESCO-block to a destination now expected to live up to its billing as an environmental world-beater. The future will tell if the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, with its autonomous powers, responds with the facilities needed to complement an undoubtedly world-class attraction.
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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