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(Yonhap Feature) Geoje Island shifts focus from shipbuilding to tourism

All News 09:28 July 21, 2016

(Editor's note: This article is the seventh in our feature series on South Korea's lesser-known tourist spots)
By Kim Eun-jung

GEOJE ISLAND, South Korea, July 21 (Yonhap) -- Situated on the southeastern tip of the Korean Peninsula, Geoje Island has all the resources it needs to become a hot tourism spot: scenic beaches, coastal roads, subtropical islets and gentle mountains.

But South Korea's second-largest island following Jeju is more widely known as the world-class shipbuilding town, housing two of the nation's three largest shipyards -- Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co., and Samsung Heavy Industries Co.

With its economy heavily relying on the shipmakers, the island spanning 400 square kilometers hasn't put much effort into drawing visitors like other fishing villages that have avidly promoted its popular spots.

The mood has changed lately after the main source of income of the island is going through a dark tunnel as persistently low oil prices weigh down on the shipbuilding industry of Asia's fourth-largest economy.

The island, whose majority workers are employed in the main industry out of 260,000 population, has faced fresh calls to attract more tourists as a way to support the sluggish local economy.

Earlier this month, President Park Geun-hye recommended people give Geoje a try this summer to enjoy its beaches and cruise tours to nearby islands in Hallyeo Haesang National Park.

The island is located about 400 km southeast of Seoul and it takes four and a half hours by car to reach there from the capital city. It is just a one-hour drive from the port city of Busan, connected via Geoga Bridge, a 8.2 km bridge-tunnel fixed link opened in 2010.

One of the top recommended islets is Haegumgang, a small islet off the southern coast of Geoje. It means "Kumgang mountain floating on sea," a mountain along North Korea's eastern coast that has been the site of inter-Korean tourism program until 2008.

The islet shows off various faces sculpted by sea wind and waves over a long period of time, and their rugged facets have such names as candle, bride, groom, lion, ship and skeleton. Short pine trees and other plants on the barren land hug the cliff, befriending seagulls.

Visitors can capture the best views when the sun rises or sets between the layers of rocks, if the weather permits.

On mild days, cruise ships can take passengers to the narrow caves via a dynamic steering of handles for a mysterious adventure.

About 10 minutes of a ferry ride from Haegeumgang lies Oedo (meaning outer island), dubbed as the "Hawaii of Geoje."

In 1969, Lee Chang-ho, a businessman from Seoul, took shelter at the island from a squall and decided to buy it. Lee and his wife built a house on the peak and started to plant tropical plants and rare flowers over the next three decades to turn it into a marine botanic garden.

Thousands of kinds of flowers and trees are carefully trimmed along the ridges, and several sculptures, monuments and fountains are sporadically spotted between the exotic species. The site has appeared in several dramas and commercials, including a 2002 Korean TV series "Winter Sonata."

For those who want to see untamed nature, Jisimdo off the east coast is recommended as the next stop.

If Oedo is a chic urban lady, Jisimdo is an unsophisticated country girl with a secret.

The 0.36 square kilometer island is the habitat of camellia flowers that bloom in winter through early spring, displaying a stark contrast between white snow and fiery red.

Walking up the rugged, muddy pathways, hikers can get a panoramic view of the crystal blue sea and feel a cool breeze.

Four artillery sites near the peak look over the Straits of Korea, reminding one that the southern islet was formerly used as the Japanese navy's base during World War II, along with an ammunition and search light storage houses.

Jisimdo is currently owned by the Ministry of National Defense, but it will be handed over to Geoje next month thanks to city residents' long calls to take it back after over six decades.

"Jisimdo was a strategic military point used by the Japanese navy to prepare attacks on China during World War II," Yoon Ah-shim, a city tour guide, said. "Now, it is frequented by visitors who want to enjoy the serene scenery and spectacular ocean view."

Another historical site that tells a painful story is the Historic Park of Geoje POW (Prisoners of War) Camp, located near the glitzy downtown in the island's central region.

Surrounded by two mountains, the POW camp was established in February 1951 by the U.N. High Command to detain 150,000 North Korean and 20,000 Chinese soldiers who fought in the 1950-53 Korean War.

The camp measuring 11.8 square km was closed after the Armistice Agreement was signed on July 27, 1953, and was later turned into a park in 1997 to display prisoner barracks, military equipment and other historical records.

A hike through the park provides a glimpse of the daily life of prisoners and a chronicle of the three-year conflict. Inside the barracks, bloody conflicts occurred between hardcore, organized pro-communists and anti-communists.

In May 1952, U.S. Brigadier-General Francis Dodd, the camp commander, visited Compound 76 to listen to complaints by Communist leaders and was held captive for 78 hours. The prison riot was the topic of Chinese-American writer Ha Jin's 2004 fiction, "War Trash."

Video interviews of POW survivors and 4D movies about their lives are showing at a theater, and visitors can get hands-on experience of what life was like for POWs inside the former barracks.

"I learned about the Korean War in school, but rarely knew about lives of North Korean and Chinese prisoners captured during the war," Kim Ji-hye, a 26-year-old visitor from Busan, said. "I think it must have been even harder for female prisoners."

Provincial government and tourism officials say they will try to encourage more locals and foreigners to visit the island, inviting journalists and bloggers from abroad to introduce popular sites to their readers.

"Geoje has not paid much attention to foster its tourism industry until the shipbuilding industry was hit hard by the global slump. The provincial government has designated the tourism industry as a new growth driver, seeking ways to collaborate with residents and business community," said Jang Sun-chun, a tourism promotion official at South Gyeongsang Provincial Government Office. "I expect the government's decision to expand Gimhae International Airport will also boost our efforts as it could bring more tourists from other countries."

To provide wider options, tourism officials suggested Geoje join hands with Busan and Tongyeong, a nearby fishing town connected via Geoje Bridge, to make it a "Golden Tourist Tourism Circuit."

"Promoting a travel package linking adjacent tourism spots could also lure more visitors who want to stay longer here," Choi Jong-hak, a senior official at the Korea Tourism Organization, said.

ejkim@yna.co.kr
(END)

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