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Healing powers of an island trekJeju Olle founder Suh Myung Sook talks about her dramatic reinvention of Korean tourism
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승인 2010.09.18  18:43:32
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▲ Olle founder Suh Myung Sook. Photo courtesy Jeju Olle

Take an ex-journalist decompressing from a frenzied 23-year career in Seoul and a chance encounter on a pilgrimage in Spain in 2006. A year later and back on Jeju Island, the concept of “slowing down” and experiencing nature is not only embraced by Korean tourists, but has made walking a hugely popular tourism activity on the island.

The founder of Jeju Olle, Suh Myung Sook, is as surprised as anyone at the number of people now walking the trails. “Two became five, five became 10, and 10 to a couple hundred thousand,” she said in a recent interview with The Jeju Weekly.

Taking a break on Olle trail 14-1, in a shaded garden behind the O’sulloc Green Tea Museum on the west of the island, the veteran reporter said her primary hope is that people appreciate the benefits of slowing down, enjoying nature close up and interacting with fellow travelers and locals in a more humane way.

“Koreans as a people lead an extremely hectic and pushy lifestyle. They rush everything in their daily lives,” she said.

While everyone strives to be successful, Suh believes modern day Koreans have a particularly insatiable drive due to their relatively fresh memories of extreme poverty during and after the Korean War.

“They’ve forgotten how to relax and handle obstacles in their lives. They get overly frustrated and confused upon facing even minor failures. This is reflected in the rising suicide rate,” she explained.

To escape from this lack of communication and interpersonal interaction, Suh says people come to Jeju Olle “and explore an entirely new paradigm of vacationing.” The word ‘olle,’ which refers to the narrow paths that snake along the squat, black volcanic stone walls of the island, has become synonymous with visiting Jeju.

Since the first course opened in September 2007, Olle’s popularity has exploded here. While the decentralized nature of the trails means exact numbers are difficult to estimate, both mainland tourists and islanders alike come and go on the trails, some for a few hours, some for weeks; some even in large corporate outings designed to build team spirit.

Of the 22 trails currently open or planned, five or six receive the brunt of an estimated 500,000 walkers a year. Some walkers register at the start and finish of a trail, similar to pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago route from southern France to northern Spain, collecting official stamps in their trail booklets.

The 357 kilometers of trails now span about three-quarters of the island. In keeping with the environmental message and human scale of the Olle ethos, trails are built and maintained by volunteers who use only their physical labor and not large machines. They vary from a short start-to-finish 4 to 5-hour walk totalling 15 to 17 kilometers, to trails that require days of trekking to complete. A wide variety of scenery and trail selections make Jeju Olle accessible to a large demographic.

However, when asked about handicapped accessible routes, Suh said they have yet to finalize a plan for how to proceed, explaining that since the routes are only marked and modified using human power, the large-scale upgrades required for handicap-accessible trails might run counter to the Olle philosophy.

It was on the 800-kilometer pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago, in autumn 2006, that Suh, who’d recently finished a year-and-a-half as editor-in-chief of the online citizen journalism site OhmyNews, struck up conversations with other trekkers along the famous Spanish trek. Her conversations, including with author Paulo Coelho who was filming a documentary about the Camino, encouraged her to set up a similar system of trails back home.

Despite having to battle entrenched official criticism on her return to Jeju Island, she “took the initiative,” enlisting the help of her brother, and marking existing pedestrian-only lanes. They then restored these old paths to create new trails for hikers to explore. An estimated 3,000 people hiked Olle trails that first year. Ten times that number in the second, with similar growth in subsequent years.

Initially, however, the lifeblood of Jeju Island – tourism – was not to be toyed with. Suh spoke of the disappointment and “energy-sapping” resistance she received from all sides.

“First off, several local government officers were against me because of the already declining tourism industry in Jeju. It was a time when tourism here essentially involved the automobile. They said, ‘Tourists are already inclined to think that Jeju is an expensive and unfriendly retreat even though you could conveniently see the island in a couple days with a car. They now prefer foreign and exotic locations to Jeju.’”

Suh recounted how opponents to Olle trails were skeptical that anyone would come to Jeju “to voluntarily experience the discomfort and the physical demands of walking.” They believed the key to attracting tourists back to the island was “by building more landmark buildings, casinos, and cable cars, as if this was a replica of a foreign country.”

“Pedestrianism is for foreigners, and Koreans are not ready to walk. Koreans like to see sights,” Suh heard time and time again. She was also told that “... the villagers were complaining that the land was private property and they were not going to let people trespass.”

But as time went on, and the tourist-friendly and environmental message of the trails began to spread, locals and mainlanders both began to warm to the idea. Suh said she’s confident islanders recognize that Olle Trails will benefit them more than those “mammoth tours,” by which she means the travel agencies, resort complexes and golf courses.

“The Ollers walk, and therefore they don’t carry around stuff they bought... They drink local water, eat at local restaurants, and stay at local accommodations. The drivers come and look around the city for a couple days and the golfers play for a day before they leave. Yet, Ollers need to stay here for three or four days at least; it could be one or two weeks or even up to a month.”

“So in the long run, visitors of Olle would be spending more money here —the longer the stay, the more the consumption. But what is more important is that the money is not being poured into some “mammoth” corporate chain stores. It’s being distributed to the local economy and individuals.”

Many see Jeju Olle as unique in its small-scale, yet enticing, scenery. Suh is a believer.

▲ Photo by Daniel Kojetin

“Trails overseas, like the ones in Switzerland and New Zealand, are surrounded by dramatic and grand-scaled nature that is defined by its height and width; it is ‘mammoth,’” she explained. For Jeju “the beauty of the landscape of each trail [is] on a human scale, be it the oreum [lateral volcanos], gotjawal [a forest unique to Jeju], the villages and the sea.”

“The nature here is subtle and exquisite ... Above all, it is feminine ... I hope that people can appreciate the femininity of nature. One should not expect to see the tallest, the broadest, or the grandest; but to see the natural details assemble into a beautiful ensemble,” she added.

Olle has affected Suh personally and positively in more ways than one.

“Us journalists, we are not a bunch that believes in miracles. We’re dry and fact-centered rather than believing and full of faith; we operate on the grounds of facts and certainty,” she said. “Although I started out [being] fond of trails and Jeju, I thought that only a few people would be with me. I would have never guessed that so many people would come together and witness such miracles that are still ongoing.”

Being a famous face on the island and spending much of her time on the trails herself, fellow hikers have shared a large number of inspiring personal stories with her.

Suh recounted one case where a 29-year-old woman who was diagnosed with cancer and recently separated from her boyfriend came to Jeju Island to enjoy nature one last time and then throw herself off a cliff. But after walking the Olle trails and contemplating her situation – free from the hectic pace of the big city – she came to realize what a precious gift life is. She returned to her guest house, confessed everything to the owner and returned to Seoul to start chemotherapy and a new lease on life.

“She was thankful of everything that was beautiful: To feel the nature, the wind, and the sea... Someone who bailed out on life have came back to love it!” Suh said.

Now that Jeju Olle has become a mainstream tourism option, Suh is looking to international markets for yet more visitors. The International Olle Festival will be held Nov. 9 to Nov. 13. Visitors will walk to different communities on the trails and experience original cuisine and amateur performances by the villagers.

This year Olle trails 1 through 5 will be showcased, and trails 5 to 10 in 2011. Suh expects that most visitors will be predominately from Asia, at least initially, but in a few years it will become “truly an international festival.” She said a large number of Japanese walkers have already preregistered for November.

Back in the courtyard of the tea museum, Suh, having gotten her second wind, summed up the main point of Olle: Nature and the common man.

“Olle is like a gift from the volunteers to the people. It wasn’t orchestrated by a great saint like on the Santiago trails nor by a revered monk who wanted to cure illness like on the Shikoku [Japan] trails.”

Suh described the trail as the work of an “ordinary” woman ex-journalist and a group of “ordinary” volunteers who sought to contribute to the community.

“I’m proud that such a work is being done without any capital investment or government support. This is the reason for the greatness of the story of the Olle trails; that it was the sweat of common people, not some Holy saints or anyone with reputation. It was a battle with the soil.”

For more information, consult the Jeju Olle Web site where you can find route information, maps and phone numbers to restaurants and guest houses along trails 1 through 16. You can also download free the new Jeju Olle iPhone app (in Korean, search 제주올레) that uses augmented reality to add layers of useful travel information to your mapping/GPS device.

Disclosure: Suh Myung Sook and I once worked together at the online news site OhmyNews in Seoul.
Transcription and translation by Chris J. Park

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