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Jeju islanders have mixed feeling about tourists

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Jeju International Airport is crowded with tourists Sunday as tourism to the southern island bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic. With Buddha's Birthday last Thursday and Children's Day this Tuesday, by taking a few extra days off work, people are enjoying up to a week off, enabling them to have enough time to explore the island or other tourist destinations. / Yonhap
Jeju International Airport is crowded with tourists Sunday as tourism to the southern island bounced back from the COVID-19 pandemic. With Buddha's Birthday last Thursday and Children's Day this Tuesday, by taking a few extra days off work, people are enjoying up to a week off, enabling them to have enough time to explore the island or other tourist destinations. / Yonhap

Tourism sector elated, yet some locals wary of virus infections

By Kang Hyun-kyung

JEJU ― A cafe in the Osulloc Tea Museum in Andeokmyeon, Seoguipo City, on the southern part of this island was crowded Thursday, as social distancing driven by the COVID-19 pandemic showed signs of easing with the sharp drop in daily infections.

Named after sulloc, a homegrown tea from the southern island, Osulloc means the origin of green tea, and the tea plantation promotes itself as home to the premium product.

The Osulloc Tea Museum compound stretches over 495,000 square meters in a once wilderness area and is a tourist hotspot. At the cafe, people sip green tea, other green tea-based drinks or coffee, while some enjoy green tea ice cream. Basic skincare and hair care products are also on sale there.

Weeks of social distancing have made people tired of a life in solitude and the lack of social outings, causing them to yearn for an escape.

This has seen tourists flock back to the scenic island for national holidays that started last week. With Buddha's Birthday last Thursday and Children's Day this Tuesday, by taking a few extra days off work, people can enjoy up to a week off, enabling them to have enough time to explore the island or other tourist destinations.

Like in Osulloc, several popular tourist sites saw a flood of visitors during the weekend. Beaches and botanical gardens were filled with tourists. The two-way road near Seongpanak Trail at Hallasan National Park was packed with cars as visitors climbed the mountain.

In the past week, nearly 40,000 tourists have visited Jeju daily.

The return of tourists appears to be welcomed by the islanders ― who have been feeling the pinch from the devastating effects of the coronavirus outbreak ― because the local economy relies on them.

But the pandemic has made things more complicated.

The resumption of tourism on Jeju means the islanders will be exposed to possible infection as an end to the pandemic has yet to be declared.

"I think it's quite reasonable that the local people here are worried about the virus because of the surge of tourists," Lee Sun-hwa, chairwoman of the Culture and Art Committee of the Jeju Special Self-Governing Province, told The Korea Times.

She said there is a perception gap between residents and people involved in the tourism industry.

"People in the tourism sector had hard times after the coronavirus pandemic due to the sudden decrease in tourists," she said. "There were no Chinese or Korean tourists. Unlike ordinary islanders, people in the tourism sector here are excited about tourists visiting Jeju again."

Vehicles were pulled over to the sides of the road near the Seongpanak Trail at Hallasan National Park on Jeju Island, Saturday. Since Thursday, the island has seen about 40,000 daily visitors. / Yonhap
Vehicles were pulled over to the sides of the road near the Seongpanak Trail at Hallasan National Park on Jeju Island, Saturday. Since Thursday, the island has seen about 40,000 daily visitors. / Yonhap

The increase in tourists appears to have disproportionate benefits for locals in the tourism sector.

There are several restaurants near the Osulloc Tea Museum, but many were closed last week. Two I wanted to go to for lunch were not open, so I called two more in Andeokmyeon. One didn't return the call, while a female owner of the other said her restaurant has been closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

I was able to eat lunch at a restaurant about a 30-minute drive away. It seemed very popular, as the small eatery was crowded with people. Once a table was vacated, a group waiting outside came in and took it.

Its booming business stood in stark contrast to the dim fate of another small eatery selling fish and sushi across the street. Business there was slow: there were no customers.

For tourists on Jeju, a convenient location seems not to be a criterion they consider when deciding on places to visit.

A two-story teahouse in Seoguipo City showed a trend that younger travelers, in particular, prefer off-the-beaten track travel on the island.

The teahouse, Seoyang Cha Gwan, which means "Western tea house," sits in solitude in front of the ocean. Visitors can reach it by driving for 15 minutes after passing Soesokkak pond. It offers fine ocean views from the second floor.

A wave of visitors flocked to it Thursday afternoon. Inside, the female owner serves various milk teas. She wore a mask and tried to speak as little as possible, maybe because of the coronavirus.

I ordered green milk tea that was served with a small red flower and green tea powder. The sweet, exotic flavor delighted my taste buds.

On Jeju, the coronavirus has been a big test for those in the tourism sector. They have been hit hard. Meanwhile, the pandemic appears to have raised a key issue over the traditional way of doing business with tourists. As visitors have become sophisticated and picky in where they visit, some self-employed islanders are trying to adapt to these changing travel patterns.


Kang Hyun-kyung hkang@koreatimes.co.kr


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