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(Yonhap Feature) Hidden Korean attractions beckon tourists from home and abroad

All Headlines 09:00 March 14, 2016

By Kang Yoon-seung

SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- Chin Eun-sun, a 27-year-old Korean lecturer at a local college, is like no other Seoulite when it comes to craving a break from the daily grind and taking a few days off to travel.

While a rising number of South Koreans, from typical office workers to travel enthusiasts, go abroad to escape from hectic urban life in Asia's fourth-largest economy, Chin, however, says she prefers spending time in quiet provincial areas to standing in long lines at Incheon International Airport.

"The merit of traveling in South Korea is that we can plan a trip in less than a week," Chin said, who recently visited the eastern coastal city of Sokcho, about 210 kilometers from Seoul, for some rest and relaxation.

"There are many places to go in South Korea, more than we think," Chin said. "Another great thing about traveling around the country is that we rarely have trouble finding cuisine that suits our palates."

For South Koreans, it goes without saying that more people would still rather take their vacations overseas. State-run Korea Tourism Organization said around 19 million South Koreans traveled abroad in 2015, up 20.1 percent on-year, especially helped by the rise of low-cost carriers.

Last year, South Korea's so-called tourism balance also fell to the lowest rate in eight years as more travelers sought after international destinations. The Bank of Korea said South Koreans spent US$21.2 billion on their overseas trips last year, hovering far above the $14.1 billion spent by foreign visitors here.

Accordingly, the government has been making various efforts to promote local tourist destinations, not only to foreign travelers, but to South Koreans, aiming to revitalize provincial economy as well as introduce lesser-known cultural and scenic heritages.

In line with the move, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism hosted the Korea Tourism Expo 2016 in Seoul that ran through Sunday to highlight hidden but charming tourist attractions around the country.

About 100,000 are estimated to have visited the 13th annual event.

The event was also intended to boost a shared economy growth among metropolitan cities and provincial areas.

During the country's largest local tourism event, around 360 provincial governments and travel agencies boasted sightseeing spots that have been little known to the public and foreigners.

"Tongyeong boasts various attractions, including historical heritages," said Cho Su-yong, who heads tourism marketing in the city, about 480 kilometers south of Seoul. "Tongyeong holds links to various historical figures, including Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) naval hero Yi Sun-shin as well as the composer Yun Isang. There are many historical places reminiscent of their achievements."

"We also have around 570 islands, and each of them holds different characteristics and varied scenery," Cho said, adding the region is also packed with various activities including yachting.

Tongyeong, located in South Geyongsang Province, is one of three areas designated by the ministry as tourist city of the year, along with Jecheon and Muju. Jecheon is a small city located 168 kilometers southeast of Seoul, while Muju is further south from the capital at 241 kilometers.

Ahn Gil-sang, a tour guide from Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, said the area is capable of holding a candle to other major spots around the globe.

"Jecheon has scenic views that sparkle like jewelry," Ahn said. "The area is also attractive for being named as South Korea's first slow city, which seeks an eco-friendly lifestyle along with traditional herbal treatments."

"Jadrak path, along with Cheongpung Lake, also boasts Jecheon's beauty. We seek out natural attractions, rather than artificial ones (to promote)," she added.

Another tour guide from Muju, North Jeolla Province, said the land is full of sunlight and wind, providing visitors with a natural escape.

"I am proud to say Mount Deogyu can stand along with the Alps," said Ahn Ok-hyun, who specializes in cultural tourism. "Muju is the perfect place to enjoy the changes of the four seasons. It is perfect not only for couples, but also for those who are single or traveling with family."

Provincial governments were not the only participants in the exposition.

Jinkwan Temple, located at the edge of western Seoul, said even those city dwellers can take a short break by taking a part in a temple stay.

"Nowadays, many people tend to travel outside the country. Some of them want to break away from their daily routines. I think the answer for them lies in a temple stay," said Lee Sun-young, an organizer at Jinkwan.

A temple stay refers to a trip to Buddhists' temples for a day or two in order to experience life as a monk. Visitors are provided with healthy vegetarian meals and the opportunity to talk with resident monks.

"If you come to the temple, you can have a better understanding of our world and find the reasons behind our happiness or sadness," Lee said. "I can see people's facial expressions change as they visit and leave us."

As such, the rising awareness of provincial attractions, as well as the development of various accessible activities, has made traveling within the country a new trend among South Koreans, with the exposition also being packed with visitors planning their next trip.

But experts said South Korea needs to make more efforts to sustain the growth of the local tourism industry, adding the government-level support is also crucial in utilizing the country's rich tourism resources.

Oh Soon-hwan, a professor at Yongin University, also said South Korea needs to make tourist attractions in provinces more sustainable.

"Last year, the number of South Korean citizens heading overseas surpassed that of Japan, even though we have a far smaller population," Oh told Yonhap News Agency. "This is because local tourism content lacked sustainability and could not attract visitors all-year around."

"But we should learn a lesson from hallyu, the wave of Korean culture around the world. Hallyu rose from content, not infrastructure," Oh said, adding the country invested too much in building roads and facilities and far less in creating content.

Oh said South Korea boasts a handful of world-famous festivals, including the Boryeong Mud Festival held at Daecheon Beach on the country's western coast as well as the Hwacheon Sancheoneo Ice Festival in the Gangwon Province town, both of which successfully attract not only locals but also foreigners.

"We really need to be patient in developing content," Oh said, adding how much potential the country's provincial areas have. "Tourists do not seek fancy facilities, but rather things they could really enjoy."

colin@yna.co.kr
(END)

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