GANGNEUNG/SOKCHO, Gangwon Province -- Just a two-hour drive from the sleepless metropolis that is Seoul, South Korea’s eastern coast feels like a different world: white sandy beaches, laid-back shore towns and surfers paddling in the sea.
No wonder beaches along the East Sea are popular holiday destinations for locals seeking to escape the city.
Songjiho Beach, located in Goseong County, Gangwon Province, some 200 kilometers east of Seoul.
“We often come to the beaches off the East Sea as the water here is clearer,” Byun Sang-yong, 52, told The Korea Herald while enjoying ice cream with his family under a beach umbrella at Gyeongpo Beach, Gangneung.
“It got even easier to get here when the new highway opened,” said Byun, who traveled by car from Dongducheon, Gyeonggi Province.
The new 150-kilometer expressway, opened in June, connects Seoul and the coastal city of Yangyang, cutting the travel time between Seoul and the eastern coast by half to 90 minutes from the original three hours. This, of course, can vary greatly, depending on traffic.
By the end of this year, a high-speed rail line operated by Korea Train Express will be extended to Gangneung, one of the biggest cities in Gangwon, in anticipation of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics to be held in the province. It is expected to take one hour and 12 minutes from Seoul to Gangneung.
There are about 120 beaches along the east coast, stretching from Goseong-gun, Gangwon Province, to Gyeongju, North Gyeongsang Province. Last summer, the beaches drew about 30 million people during the summer vacation season, according to the municipalities.
“The main reason Koreans travel to the beaches off the east coast is the natural scenery -- mountains, pine trees and lakes,” said Kang Souk-ho, head of the tourism team at Gangneung city government. “The water here is clearer and sand is finer than in the west.”
But flawless nature is not the only thing the east coast can offer.
“It is also good to surf and enjoy watersports due to the big waves,” Kang said.
In recent years, the East Sea has gained popularity among Koreans seeking to experience the thrill of kayaking, surfing, snorkeling, sea rafting and paddle boarding, among other water activities.
Dubbed the “Naples of Korea,” Jangho Beach in Samcheok draws snorkelers with its crystal-clear waters. Jukdo Beach in Yangyang is famous among surfers.
“It is the first time I’ve tried surfing. It’s fun waiting to catch waves,” said Hong Jeong-hee, 23, who came to take a surf lesson with her boyfriend at Jukdo Beach.
Some beaches along the northern section of the east coast, close to the border with North Korea, have been off limits, with barbed-wire fences erected to prevent possible infiltration by North Korean agents from the sea.
The government plans to remove some 27.3 kilometers of barbed wire in 32 areas along the eastern coastal frontline by the end of August.
Unmanned electronic surveillance systems will be installed instead.
The better transport links and urbanites’ dreams of having beachside second homes is driving a property boom in cites near the beach, such as Sokcho and Gangneung.
According to the Korea Appraisal Board, the number of houses sold in Sokcho more than doubled from 1,649 in 2015 to 3,313 last year. During the same period, the number of homes sold in Gangneung was 3,471, up 18.95 percent from 2,918 the previous year.
By Ock Hyun-ju (email@example.com)