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(Yonhap Feature) Jeju Island aspires to become one of the world's '7 Wonders of Nature'

All News 09:00 January 31, 2011

by Anne Hilty
Contributing Writer

JEJU ISLAND, South Korea, Jan. 31 (Yonhap) -- Jeju Island of South Korea is well known for its natural beauty and pristine environment. But is it truly one of the "7 Wonders of Nature"?

Some may say yes, but others may disagree.

The island is now a finalist in the international New 7 Wonders of Nature campaign being waged by an organizer in Switzerland. An international panel of experts will pick the winners in November after tallying Internet votes by supporters.

The 28 finalists were selected after evaluating more than 440 locations in more than 220 countries on the basis of a number of criteria, including unique beauty, diversity and distribution of natural sites, ecological significance, historical legacy and geo-location.

Does Jeju have what it takes to win?

UNESCO has indicated that it does. The U.N. body designated Jeju a "biosphere reserve" in 2002 and deemed the island a World Natural Heritage Site in 2007. Last year, Jeju was awarded "geopark" status, making the subtropical island the only place on Earth to have received all three UNESCO designations.

But is this enough to compete with such world-renowned nominees as the Galapagos Islands, Grand Canyon, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Brazilian rain forest or Great Barrier Reef, among others?

"Yes, it is," said Hwang Kyung-sun, a representative of the National Commission for the Jeju N7W Campaign.

In addition to Jeju's distinct "triple crown" UNESCO status, she added that Jeju is one of the very few sites among the 28 finalists to have had a lengthy period of human cohabitation with its natural wonders.

These two assets enable the island to stand out among the contestants, she says.

Why is Jeju in this contest?

The biggest reason is "revenue," according to Jeju officials and supporters of the island's campaign for the designation.

Jeju's provincial government is currently sponsoring six major projects designed to attract international attention, and it is focused on generating new tourism industries.

Supporters note that winners of the New 7 Wonders of the World contest in 2007, including the Taj Mahal of India, Petra of Jordan and Machu Picchu of Peru, have seen their tourism income rise up to 70 percent since the campaign's conclusion. Supporters believe Jeju can expect similar results.

Jeju obtains 70 percent of its annual revenue from tourism. In 2010, this figure breached the 3 trillion won ($2.6 billion) mark, and in 2011, it is estimated to rise above 3.5 trillion won from an approximated 10 million tourists.

Eco-tourism, with a focus on natural phenomena, is emerging as a powerful economic force. Another force is cultural tourism, and Jeju has marked potential for both, according to supporters.

"It is important to preserve Jeju's nature," says Hwang, "and to do so, we must first educate people about its value."

Not everyone on Jeju is supportive of the campaign.

Environmentalists, while keen to extol and preserve the island's natural resources, are against this N7W campaign, according to Ahn Hye-kyoung, a member of two prominent environmental groups on Jeju.

"The provincial government is spending huge amounts of money on it," Ahn says. "Yet, while the government claims to support cultural and environmental preservation, it apportions only a tiny amount of its overall budget for this purpose."

Ahn says she and other local environmentalists believe that a pronounced increase in eco-tourism could potentially wreak havoc on the very environment being visited.

Another major concern among Jeju residents is the proposed naval base to be built by the central government in the Seogwipo region of the island. Highly controversial and contested, the project conflicts with Jeju's bucolic image, contradicting its potential status as a wonder of the natural world and threatening its candidacy in this campaign.

The use of taxpayer money for the campaign represents a third area of concern. Presently, both provincial and national governments are sponsoring the campaign. However, according to Oh Seung-a, a Jeju New7Wonders representative at the Jeju Tourism Organization, corporate and private sponsorship are being actively sought, but are not readily forthcoming.

Former Prime Minister Jung Woon-chan is leading the national commission for this campaign. The commission has sponsored a nationwide media blitz, presentations at schools, Internet representation, promotional materials at tourist sites and the setup of a local phone number for easy voting within Korea.

The voting tabulation includes four ranking categories: international (outside of the site's own country), gender, age and increase over the previous month. Together, they constitute an overall standing. Jeju is currently in the top 14 overall and in first place for increase in votes over the previous month.

In international votes, however, the island is near the bottom. N7W has said that, while international votes are preferred, they do not carry more weight than any other votes when it comes to the final tabulation.

The commission's international efforts include visits to large Korean communities in the United States and Europe, campaign offices in Japan and China, and promotions by the 14 global branch offices of the Korean Tourism Organization.

The official Web site of the commission, http://www.jejun7w.com/, will soon include a mirror site in English.

How does one vote?

By Internet (http://www.new7wonders.com), one can vote once, for no fewer than seven nominees, per e-mail address. By telephone, you may dial 001-1586-7715 to vote and can vote for Jeju only, and without limits.

"I would like to ask people to start their day with this telephone call," Oh said, adding that foreign residents also can vote.

Whether or not Jeju wins designation as one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature, it will maintain its status as a finalist, an honor -- and economic boon -- indeed, Oh said.


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