For the last 10 years or so, my family’s summer vacations have revolved around three places: Pyeongchang in Gangwon Province, Busan and Jejudo Island.
Getting on a red-eye flight to arrive at a destination, disoriented from lack of sleep, just to lounge around in a tropical resort or dash about to historical sites for a few days before heading home on another long flight never appealed to us.
This year, we returned to Jejudo Island after having skipped a few years. We did not have any plans ― except to walk a lot, go to the beach and try new eateries.
The Saryeoni Forest was the great discovery of our visit this year. The two-hour walk along a dirt path cutting through a thick growth of trees ― Japanese cedars and cypress among them ― lush bushes and wild hydrangeas seemed to transport us to a time primeval.
The arduous climb up the steep stairs to the grotto on Sanbangsan, a dome-shaped lava mass rising above the surface of a lava flow, rewarded us with a panoramic view of the sea and the nearby Yongmeori coast, another unique lava formation, named so because it resembles the head of a dragon going into the sea.
Of course, holidaying on Jejudo Island calls for time on the beach. The beaches there vary greatly depending on location ― featuring lava rocks, smooth black pebbles, coarse black sand and fine white sand. This time, we spent a day on Hyeopjae Beach on the western part of the island, amazed that all it took was an hour-long flight to enjoy the wide white sand beach, the crystal clear waters, and a warm, salty breeze.
The primary attraction of Jeju Island is its nature ― the towering Mount Hallasan that sits majestically at the center of the island, some 360 volcanic cones called oreum that dot the landscape, gotjawal that feature a unique mix of trees and bushes on lava terrain, many primitive forests and wetlands, an extensive network of caves and lava tubes, and numerous beaches, to name just a few.
Since our last holiday there, Jejudo Island had earned yet another UNESCO designation ― Global Geoparks Network ― in addition the UNESCO World Natural Heritage and UNESCO Biosphere Reserves titles. The designations underscore the priceless value of Jeju’s unique natural environment.
Yet, the recent trip left me concerned about the numerous construction sites I witnessed everywhere.
We often got stuck on narrow two-lane roads of the mountainous inland region as dump trucks, concrete mixer trucks and other heavy vehicles slowed down the traffic. I saw many buildings under construction and several lots of land cleared for development during an hour-long drive.
The recent boom in tourism ― the island is attracting a record number of foreign tourists, especially Chinese, who make up 80 percent of all arrivals ― has led to an explosion of development projects and developers are now encroaching inland as the coastal areas are already heavily developed.
I left Jejudo Island anxious that on our next trip we would see even more of the lush forests and wilderness razed to the ground to make way for new developments. Such developments, while they bring in tourist dollars, will eventually destroy the very reason we go to Jejudo Island ― its unique, untouched nature.
It was with great relief, then, that I read about the new Jeju Gov. Won Hee-ryong’s call for a review of two large-scale development projects ― Jeju Dream Tower, 219-meter-tall twin towers to be built in Jeju City, and Resorts World Jeju, a $2.2 billion integrated resort. Jeju Dream Tower has allotted 9,017 square meters to a casino, while according to foreign news reports, Resorts World Jeju would include 800 gaming tables.
Rather than relying on casinos and large-scale resort complexes to generate money, Jeju Special Self-Governing Province should explore ways to promote tourism that preserves the environment and earns top dollars for local businesses. The island’s biggest and most valuable asset ― its pristine natural environment ― should be preserved to allow it to yield returns for generations to come.
I hope my children and my children’s children will to continue to holiday on Jeju Island long after I am gone ― exploring and enjoying its numerous natural wonders. In the meantime, I can’t wait to visit Geomun Oreum on our next vacation.
By Kim Hoo-ran
Kim Hoo-ran is a senior writer at The Korea Herald. She can be reached at email@example.com. ― Ed.