Hit TV series leads to surge in visitors to southern region of Korea seeking glimpse of dolphins

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins / Courtesy of Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries

Locals welcome tourism boom, but environmental activists worry about impact on marine ecosystem

By Lee Hae-rin

The popular TV series, "Extraordinary Attorney Woo," has created a tourism boom in the nation's southern region.

The southeastern coastal city of Ulsan and the southern resort island of Jeju, which are already popular tourist destinations, have seen an influx of even more tourists since the drama featuring a lawyer with autism spectrum disorder, named Woo Young-woo, became a hit.

In the TV series, whales are Woo's favorite animal.

Ulsan, also known for its whale sighting opportunities, has benefitted from the popularity of the drama.

According to the Ulsan Namgu City Management Corp., 4,924 passengers rode on the city's whale tour boat as of the middle of August, already accounting for 76 percent of last year's total number of passengers. The average number of people riding on the boat has also more than doubled to 259 over the past year.

The pandemic-hit region is welcoming the return of tourists.

The city management corporation launched an event providing free entrance to all whale-related activities and facilities to visitors who have a name that starts and ends with the same letter like the series' main character Woo Young-woo. Six people have benefited from the event.

Jeju Island is another famous whale habitat in the country whose tourism industry is benefiting from the drama.

Despite the bad weather conditions in recent weeks, "an increasing number of tourists have come to see dolphins after watching the series," said a dolphin tour boat business owner who wished to remain anonymous. He said his business now operates dolphin tours about 10 times a day to meet demand which has grown 7 to 8 times since the drama aired.

However, a marine animal protection group voices worries that the dolphin tour boats tend to sail too close to the endangered marine species and may threaten their ecosystem.

In this picture taken on June 8, a dolphin tour ship sails amid a school of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins off the coast of Daejeong-eup on Jeju Island. The Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries designated the marine mammal as a protected species and restricts boats from sailing less than 50 meters away from them. Courtesy of Hot Pink Dolphins

"The tours on the coastal waters of Daejeong-eup, in Jeju Island's Seogwipo city offer rides to watch a herd of Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, which are an endangered species designated by the oceans ministry," Jo Yak-gol, the co-leader of Jeju's animal advocacy group, Hot Pink Dolphins, told The Korea Times, Wednesday.

Only about 120 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are known to live in Jeju's coastal waters and the species has been subject to protection under the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries since 2012.

The ministry recommended in 2017 that no more than two boats sail at the same time around the school of dolphins and that the vessels should stay at least 50 meters away. However, the guidelines are ineffective in actually protecting the endangered animal as they have no binding power.

Meanwhile, competition is intensifying among these businesses to sail closer to the dolphins to meet the expectations of passengers. Many of the businesses promise on their social media and advertisements to bring passengers as close as possible to the dolphins.

Jo said that his group monitors the activities of the marine mammals more than a hundred times every year and detected several businesses repeatedly breaching the ministry's guidelines. The group reported the violations to the ministry and the local government and condemned the tour businesses for taking advantage of the legal vacuum to attract more visitors.

The tour boat business operator said that the vessels had no intention of going near the dolphins and claimed that the animals are coming closer to the boats themselves, possibly out of curiosity or as a friendly gesture to humans. "The dolphins are important tourism resources for us as well and we do our best to protect them," he said.

Jo disagreed and explained that dolphins tend to send out strong and smart members of their group to distract a source of danger and protect the rest of the herd. Those animals would not have come close to the boats if they had not invaded their natural habitat, Jo said. The animal protection group said it even found a dolphin with a damaged fin, likely from the boat's propeller.

The ministry's guidelines only protect the Indo-Pacific dolphins in Jeju's coastal waters, but the ongoing whale tour boom and competition among businesses to sail closer to the marine mammals could endanger their existence and the entire ecosystem, according to the group.

"This is not yet the time for dolphin tours, at least with the endangered species. When their population becomes stable again, that might be the time for humans to visit them," Jo said.

Lee Hae-rin lhr@koreatimes.co.kr

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