A hiker takes in the stunning views of Mt. Seorak National Park in Gangwon province. Building wind farms around the countryside would lessen the country's tourism appeal. Photo: AFP

Korea’s leading province for leisure is surviving the Covid-19 carnage rampaging across tourism destinations globally thanks to big-spending domestic travelers who are, this year, unable to holiday abroad.

This success has been partly enabled by smart planning and partly underwritten by Olympic legacy projects. It is also being future proofed with upcoming projects that range from a global theme park to a potential inter-Korean tourism zone.

“From the start, our province was hit immensely because 70% of our economy relies on tourism,” said Choi Moon-soon, governor of Gangwon Province, referring to the early outbreak of the pandemic in Korea in February and March. “At that time, there was zero tourism.”

However, since then, Gangwon, in South Korea’s northeast, bordering North Korea, has seen numbers bounce back to levels matching last year’s.

“As people cannot go overseas, more people are travelling in Korea so some parts of the province are getting better business than before Covid,” Choi told Asia Times in an interview.

And in a boon to small-scale players – such as campsite operators and pension owners – practices are shifting. “Large-scale tourism is going down,” Choi said. “But we are seeing more family and individual tourism.”

South Korea’s quarantine regulations – all arrivals at airports in the country are required to undergo 14 days of isolation immediately after landing – are a huge disincentive to overseas travel. 

With Koreans being the world’s 9th biggest-spending global travelers in 2018, according to the UN’s World Tourism Organization, the “holiday at home” trend is working to Gangwon’s advantage

Gangwon Governor Choi Moon-soon showcases a bottle of local mineral water and models an eco-friendly T-shirt made of recycled plastic bottles. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Safeguarding Korea’s playground

If it lay in the United States, Gangwon, which hosted the 2018 Winter Olympics in the county of Pyeongchang, would be a combination of Nevada and Florida.

It is famed for its rugged, scenic mountains and long, white-sand beaches. It boasts plentiful attractions, ranging from DMZ lookout points and captured North Korean submarines to water parks, K-drama filming locations, casinos – even a quirky collection of giant penis fertility totems.

This combination of natural and man-made infrastructure qualifies Gangwon as a destination for both winter sports and summer getaways. This makes the underpopulated province – it has just 1.56 million residents, among a national populace of  51 million – South Korea’s top domestic tourism destination.

An aerial view of the town of Donghae in Gangwon Province showcases the province’s two key natural attractions, its pristine coast in the foreground and its dramatic mountains in the background. Photo: Park Joon-wook/Courtesy of Gangwon Province

That heavy reliance on tourism proved near-disastrous earlier this year.

When the pandemic first hit Korea in a major outbreak in the southeastern city of Daegu in February and March, the number of visitors to Gangwon plunged 24% compared to the same period of 2019, provincial data shows.

But as national containment levels proved efficacious, confidence returned in April, when the number of visitors bounced back to 99% of last year’s numbers. In May, that figure hit 111% of the previous year. As of July, the province had logged 76.5 million visitors, the exact same level seen in 2019.

Financially, the province responded to the crisis with support programs for its tourism and agricultural sectors, as well as with a one-off payment to all Gangwon residents of 520,000 won ($438).

As an infection backstop, the province was the first in the nation to create an e-access app, “Clean Gangwon.” A QR-code based system, embedded with incentives to download it – such as free coffee coupons – the e-passport was launched in late April. It enables immediate contract tracing of any infected persons who have visited the 130,000 businesses and attractions that are members of the app.

To better enable individual tourism, Gangnam has upgraded express bus links from other parts of the country and created shuttle buses specifically for Korea’s resident foreigners.

Niche packages – “eco tourism” and DMZ-themed “peace tourism” – are being facilitated via connections to metropolitan transport system. And, unusually for South Korea, busking is being promoted in select spots.

With just one international airport, Yangyang, and one international cruise ship/ferry port, in Seokcho, Gangwon has traditionally marketed to Koreans, not overseas travelers.

Still, numbers are on the rise. In 2017, foreign visitor numbers stood at 2.82 million; in 2018, they soared to 4.02 million; and in 2019, they were at 2.95 million. That was a fall from the Olympic year of 2018, but still a rise over 2017.

With no immediate resumption of global tourism in sight, Gangwon is undertaking global marketing economically, using free online platforms – YouTube,  Facebook and TikTok – in Chinese, English and Japanese.

Socially distanced holidaymakers visit a beach in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, in May. Photo: AFP

Forward thinking

Looking ahead, with no vaccine expected to come online in Korea until mid-way through next year, it is not just this summer that is going to be impacted. This year’s winter vacation season, and quite possibly 2021’s summer, will both fall under the shadow of Covid-19.

This is why Choi is digging in for the long haul.

“We too think a vaccine will not be available until next year. Covid will continue,” said the  governor, who was speaking on the sidelines of the province’s Jeongseon Forum last week.

“We are going to keep holding these kinds of events,” Choi said. The forum was a socially distanced, environmentally themed conference that brought together experts from across the country and (via video conference) from across the world.

Next year, a $440 million Legoland, set on a river island off Gangwon’s provincial capital, Chuncheon, complete with adjacent hotels, will open. While South Koreans are well served by domestic leisure facilities such as the Samsung-operated Everland complex, Legoland will be the country’s first international theme park.

In January, the beachfront city of Gangneung, which hosted the low-altitude events of the 2018 Winter Olympics, was selected as a tourism hub to represent Korea. Over the next five years, 100 billion won ($82 million) will be invested to develop tourism resources.

And building on the “peace heritage” of the Olympics, the province plans to develop the area near the Goseong Unification Observatory Tower – where visitors can view military hardware and gaze at North Korean military outposts in the DMZ –  into a “peace tourism” site.

Ski slopes at the High1 ski resort in Jeongseon, Gangwon Province. Photo: AFP

Olympic legacies

Underwriting all these projects and plans is the province’s Olympic legacy. The most critical element of that legacy is neither the Games stadia, nor Gangwon’s raised visibility in the international space, but its upgraded transport links to the Seoul metropolitan area, home to half of Korea’s national population of 51 million.

A road link that opened in 2018 slashes 40 minutes off the time previously taken to cross the peninsula, while a new bullet train line takes Seoulites to the east coast in just two hours, one minute, compared to the previous five hours, 50 minute rail trip.

Still, not all is rosy. Last year, Asia Times noted that while Gangneung appeared to be thriving, the high county of PyeongChang, where the Olympic skiing events took place, appeared to have benefitted little from the Games.

Choi himself admits he is not entirely happy with his province’s Olympic legacy and offers related advice for Tokyo 2021 and Beijing 2024

“When we were preparing, it was all about the ‘Eco-Olympics,’ but during preparation, this fell down the priorities,” Choi said. “The ‘Peace Olympics’ was more impressive because of inter-Korean relations, but I think that, considering climate change, the environment should be the top priority when preparing an Olympics.”

Looking ahead, Choi has big hopes and dreams for his province as a site to upgrade inter-Korean relations based on a mooted trilateral, cross-border zone.

The Olympic rings are illuminated in front of a beachfront hotel in the city of Gangneung, Gangwon Province. Photo: AFP

Grand vision

Choi maintains contacts in North Korea and has been a backroom player in cross-DMZ relations.

He helped enable the New York Philharmonic Orchestra visit to Pyongyang in 2008, and was one of the unsung heroes in getting North Korea to send a team to the 2018 Winter Olympics. In the months ahead of the Games, Choi engaged with North Korean sports figures via a youth soccer tourney held in China.  

Choi is a member of President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party, which in April won an absolute majority in the National Assembly, granting the party a mandate to railroad bills.  Currently, members of the National Assembly from Gangwon are promoting  a “Special Act on Donghae [East Coast] Joint Special Tourism Zone.”

Under the scheme, it is hoped that cross-border land, air and sea corridors linking key tourism areas in Gangwon will be opened. The three areas are: South Korea’s Mount Seorak National Park, the country’s most famed mountain range; North Korea’s Mount Kumgang; and North Korea’s beach resort of Wonsan.

A view into the DMZ and North  Korea. Photo: Andrew Salmon
A view into the DMZ and North Korea from northern Gangwon Province. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

“Gangwon is a divided province – the only divided province in the world,” Choi said, with roughly 1.5 million Gangwonites on each side of the DMZ.  In North Korea, the biggest city in the province is Wonsan – a scenic, beachside location that is being championed as a pet project by the national leader himself.

“North Korea is actively developing the Wonsan area; they are planning to build 270 hotels and condominiums,” Choi said. “When Kim Jong Un met Donald Trump in Singapore, he asked Trump if wanted to build a Trump tower casino in Wonsan.”

The act that Gangwon lawmakers are proposing, would “guarantee the legality of this connected tourism zone” across the frontier, Choi explained.

With North Korean tourism per se not subject to UN sanctions, there is widespread hope among pro-engagers in Moon’s government that tourism could provide a vehicle to kick-start cross-border engagement.

Yet with Seoul seeking to engage in the face of suspicions and disinterest in both Pyongyang and Washington, Choi admits the outlook is bleak.

“I think there is no problem from the South Korean side,” Choi said. “The question is how North Korea will respond and whether the US is willing to cooperate or join.”

Inter-Gangwon tourism has a mixed legacy. There are rail links and excellent cross-border road links, the latter thanks to a Hyundai-built resort for South Korean tourists, which opened just across the border in North Korea’s famously scenic Mount Kumgang in 1998.

However, the resort closed in 2008 and the transport links have been largely dormant, after a South Korean tourist was shot dead by a North Korean soldier when she apparently wandered into an off-limits area.

South Korean demanded an investigation into the tragedy but North Korea refused. Asia Times has learned from a source familiar with the situation that the likely reason for Pyongyang’s refusal was that the female tourist was not hit just once, indicating a “shoot-to-kill” policy that would be politically embarrassing to the regime if made public.

This indicates the extreme difficulty of bringing North Korean in from the cold. Certainly, the high hopes of 2018 – when the “Peace Olympics” and the first North Korea-US summit took place, in Singapore – have not been met.

“I feel really, really sad that we have the circumstances and conditions, but things are not moving forward,” Choi said. “But we keep making efforts.”

But is it morally acceptable for free and democratic South Koreans to engage with such a repressive state?

“I don’t agree with the regime itself, but we want to make them reform and open up,” Choi said. “I believe this is the best way, the best possible way. I believe Kim Jong Un is willing to open up the country.”

A holidaymaker captures the sunrise over the Sea of Japan, which Koreans call the East Sea, from a beach in Gangwon Province. Photo: AFP