Jeju Island sees massive influx of Chinese tourists

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Jeju Island sees massive influx of Chinese tourists

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A group of Chinese tourists huddle around an ashtray and smoke in a hallway near the guest rooms of a four-star hotel in Yeon-dong, Jeju City, on Feb. 5. The sign in Korean reads: “Smoking is prohibited inside the hotel.” By Noh Jin-ho

JEJU - Last year, 1.68 million foreigners visited Jeju Island. Of these visitors, 1.08 million were Chinese.

The volcanic island, designated as Biosphere Reserve in 2002, World Natural Heritage in 2007 and Global Geopark in 2010, is on the brink of becoming the hub of mega-tourism, setting as target this year 10.5 million tourists, including both Korean and foreign visitors.

The Chinese likewise have more investments in the island than any other foreign country, having invested in seven projects worth nearly 3 trillion won ($2.7 billion) in resort and leisure development on Jeju.

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Hence, Jeju is bent on luring Chinese tourists with cheap travel packages, shopping incentives and increased Chinese language signs as well as workers who speak the language.

But with the influx of these Chinese tourists, who on average spend around 1.38 million won each, some islanders remain frustrated by the tourists’ breach of etiquette and also question the profitability of increasing visitors to the island by promoting low-cost tourism.

On the afternoon of Feb. 4, two 45-person tourist buses were parked in front of a park in Yongdam-dong in Jeju City to see the Yongduam, or the Dragon Head Rock.

Bu Hak-il, head of the Yongduam management office, said, “Because dragons hold significance for the Chinese, on average more than 2,000 people visit per day.”

Later that day, Baozhen Street in the shopping district of Yeon-dong on the north side of the island was bustling with Chinese visitors, as they pointed out seafood restaurants that had menus written in Chinese.

The street was named after the Chinese company Baozhen Group, which sent its employees on a company-wide tour to Jeju over Japan in 2011.

Likewise, traditional marketplaces have signs posted both in Korean and Chinese. The Jeju Lotte Hotel even offers dishes that Chinese prefer in its Japanese restaurant to accommodate the increased number of Chinese tourists.

A shop worker on Baozhen Street, originally from China, stated, “There are so many Chinese visitors that if you don’t speak Chinese you won’t be able to do business here.”

Of the foreign visitors to Jeju Island last year, 64.5 percent were Chinese, more than twice the amount in 2010 when there were 406,164 foreign visitors.

During the Chinese New Year holiday season, which began on Feb. 8 and ended Sunday, some 29,000 Chinese tourists were estimated to visit Jeju.

Jeju joined hands with Chinese state-operated travel agency Kanghui, designating this year as “the year to visit Korea.” Through 220 branch offices and 5,500 agencies, it plans to promote Chinese tourism in Korea. Jeju also opened a tourism office in Beijing.

“Because of Chinese tourists, there are no more ‘off-season’ prices in Jeju,” stated a worker at a travel agency.

But on the other side of the tourism boom, locals also deal with their own frustrations.

The following day, a JoongAng Ilbo reporter checked the parking lot of the four-star Jeju Pearl Tourist Hotel in Yeon-dong and found it littered with cigarette butts left by Chinese tourists. The hotel guests staying in the rooms facing the parking lot often tossed their cigarettes off their balconies.

On the hotel’s third floor, some 10 Chinese tourists were gathered in the hallway in front of their rooms with an ashtray near them chattering loudly. A sign could be seen written in Korean, “Smoking is prohibited inside the hotel.”

On the same day, at the Hotel New Crown, there was a similar scene, with two Chinese tourists walking through the hotel lobby smoking, and the front desk not asking them to stop. The four-star hotel’s bathrooms were littered with fresh cigarette butts.

An employee of the hotel stated, “Our hotel prohibits smoking but since the Chinese tourists smoke so much, there is nothing we can do but sit back and watch.”

In the same vein, tourism office staff at tourist attractions is left to clean up after their visitors. An employee at the Yongduam management office pointed out a sign in the public bathrooms that showed the correct way to use the toilet - sitting on the seat as opposed to crouching on the toilet seat.

“Because they place their feet on the toilet seat with their shoes and do their business like that, we were obliged to put up the signs.”

At another hotel last year, an elevator caught fire because of a cigarette butt thrown out in it.

Another hotel faced multiple complaints because of the noise level and smoking habits of its Chinese guests as they passed through the lobby to enter the hotel casino. The hotel finally built a separate entrance for the casino.

Local residents lament those tourists who “litter food waste, trash and cigarettes everywhere,” without bringing much profit to them.

Some islanders point out “even though there are many Chinese visitors, no profits remain for Jeju Island.” In its attempts to lure a massive amount of tourists, Jeju lowers it prices unreasonably, while the low-cost prioritizing tour groups avoid theme parks and attractions with entrance fees.

Many tour agencies receive a commission for sales, hence encouraging the tourists to buy from only certain vendors, grouping coupons and discounts. Thus local shop keepers and restaurants without deals with the tour groups are left out in the cold.

The Jungang Underground Shopping Center in Ildo-dong, Jeju City, draws on average 350 Chinese shoppers per day.

A 57-year-old man surnamed Lee, who runs a shop in the Jungang underground arcade, said, “The tour guide tells the group ‘this place is just to pass time for the next thing on the schedule so just look around and don’t buy anything.’ So, no matter how many Chinese visitors come, it does not help out much.”

Seobok Exhibition Hall in Seogwipo began charging an entrance fee of 500 won in November. Previously, it saw over 200 visitors daily but since it began charging an entrance fee, sees only a tenth of that number now.

A museum staff stated, “Recently, a travel agency, originally interested in including the exhibition as a course in a travel package, saw the entrance fee of 500 won and turned away.”

“A travel agency should develop a package which highlights the region’s special characteristics, but many Jeju travel agencies are bent on profiting through commissions,” said Oh Jeong-min, head of Jeju Arum travel agency. “Low-cost tourism can give a rather negative image of Jeju Island to the Chinese visitors.”

But as more Chinese visit the island, Jeju also draws in more capital investments.

The newly developed district of Yeon-dong has seen new buildings being constructed and old ones being torn down. It is also the location of a brand new Chinese-invested hotel scheduled to be built.

A popular jjimjilbang, or public bathhouse, in the neighborhood is Chinese-owned.

A fair number of newly built residences in the 754,324-square-meter (186-acre) luxury resort complex Raon Private Town in Hanlim-eup, complete with a golf course and foreign brand stores, are owned by Chinese.

Since 2006, the island has lured 12 large-scale investment projects worth a total of 5.61 trillion won from six countries, of which seven projects were Chinese, said the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province.

These Chinese invested 2.96 trillion won, or 52.8 percent of the total foreign investment. All seven investments were for resort or leisure-related projects.

Private investments have also increased drastically by six times since 2011 from 256 private property acquisitions to 1,548 last year.

“We get many calls from China regarding investment opportunities,” said Jin Sung-hyo, head of Dream Land Economic Institute, which specializes in Jeju real estate. “They state that Jeju has more investment value than Hainan Island [in the South China Sea], a key tourist attraction for the Chinese.”


By Noh Jin-ho [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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