|On Jeju, self-employed people running cafes and guest houses that rely on tourists are facing significant challenges from the coronavirus outbreak and following depression in the tourism sector. / Korea Times file|
Cafes, guest houses in dire straits as tourism sector suffers from the coronavirus outbreak
By Kang Hyun-kyung
Back in 2010, then a project manager at a conglomerate in Seoul who asked to be named only by his last name Lim, realized he wanted to do "something different" for a living.
Feeling it's now or never, he quit his job and moved down to the southern island of Jeju.
Lim, 49, said he initially had several ideas about his business and eventually ended up opening his own coffee house in 2013.
His coffee business went fairly well and last summer, the cafe relocated to its current location in the bustling tourist town of Bukchon near Hamdeok Beach.
The red characters of his coffee house's iconic signboard sit atop a cozy two-story building situated behind a short black stone wall.
Out of the blue, however, his coffee house found itself in dire straits.
Like many other tourism-related businesses, the cafe was hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.
"We had business downturn back in 2014 after the sinking of the passenger ferry Sewol," he told The Korea Times over the phone. "But at that time the fallout was manageable, because there were still tourists in the beach area, albeit much fewer than usual during the nationwide mourning period."
In the coronavirus outbreak, he said, his business has been in a downward spiral.
Until last year, the beachfront area used to be crowded with tourists, but now all of them are gone.
"The streets are empty," he said. "There's nothing I can do in a situation like this because my business hinges on customers."
Before the virus outbreak, Lim said nearly half of his customers were tourists and the other half were Jeju Island locals. "They no longer come over here," he said.
Lim is preparing to develop a mail-order system to sell coffee beans online as an alternative stream of income.
|Lim, whose face is not seen in this photo, brews coffee at his coffee house located near the Hamdeok Beach on Jeju island in this December 2019 photo. / Photo from Lim|
The situation for accommodation-providing businesses is even worse.
"My business is probably the hardest hit," said a guesthouse owner who asked to be identified only by his surname Jeong.
Once a Seoulite, he moved down to Jeju in 2009 to recover from an unspecified illness that he had suffered.
Now fully recovered, Jeong, 47, has run a guest house in Jeju's rural district of Jocheon-ri since 2011.
"All rooms here are four-bed dormitories, so it was inevitable that I would be unable to avoid the coronavirus fallout," he said. "They are empty because there are no tourists."
Since he opened the guesthouse, he said the "business environment" for guesthouses on Jeju has gone from bad to worse since the Korea-China diplomatic spat regarding the deployment of the U.S. anti-missile defense system Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in 2017.
To stave off business loss in the wake of a sharp drop in Chinese tourists, five-star hotels slashed prices to attract tourists from other places. "Tourists chose the luxury hotels over hostels because of their competitive prices and quality amenities," he said.
According to him, the strong competition was a prelude to the severe struggle of small accommodation startups on Jeju as the situation has worsened since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Jeong said he is seriously considering closing his guesthouse business as times become tougher year after year. "For a guesthouse business, there is no point in opening if there are no tourists," he said.
Lim and Jeong are just two of the urbanites-turned-islanders who came down to Jeju in search of a new life.
From the late 2000s, the island emerged as a popular destination for people seeking a fulfilling "second life." Retirees found the scenic island attractive as a place to live out their twilight years. Jeju's booming tourism sector also triggered the trend in migration to the island.
Sick and tired of the stressful urban life, people in their 30s and 40s came down to the island and started their own businesses. Like Lim, some opened cafes and some began bed and breakfast business for tourists.
About half of new the Jeju migrants who have chosen to settle on the island since 2010 are those in their 30s and 40s. Some chose to move for their children's education. A sudden surge of elementary school children from 2010 to 2018 on the island resulted in bigger class sizes and the construction of new elementary schools.
|This photo features Jeju island's Hamdeok Beach. Sick and tired of the stressful urban life, people in their 30s and 40s came down to the island and started their own businesses. / Korea Times file|
Celebrities also played a role to facilitate the migration. Singer Lee Hyo-ri found a Jeju home in 2010 and built a house in the rustic town of Aewol. Lee and her husband lived there until last year when they sold their estate to move to Seoul. Among celebrities, having a second home on the island became popular.
Inspired by Jeju's exotic, scenic landscape, a number of artists also moved to the island to fully focus on their creative works without distraction.
Jeju was so popular that the island saw an average of 1,000 new settlers per month between 2010 and 2017.
With the migration boom, housing and real estate prices soared. Traffic congestion and rising prices made things tougher, causing the island to lose its luster as a place to call "home."
The mainland-island migration has slowed since 2018.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, tourist numbers have sharply dropped. In March, for example, the island saw 70 percent fewer tourists compared to the same period the previous year.
Self-employed people running businesses that rely on tourists are facing significant challenges from the coronavirus outbreak and following depression in the tourism sector.