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Ecotourism Korea: Promoting Ecotourism as a Positive Force for the Country's Sustainable Development
Photo by Michael Soncina (sonchyadventure.tumblr.com)
By Michael Soncina
Though I consider myself well-traveled, my first trip to South Korea was one that shattered all of my pre-conceptions. My exposure to Korea has been mainly through the Korean Tourism Board, which floods our minds with images of food, dance and traditional culture. The slogan "Dynamic Korea" accompanied by pictures of colorful costumes and never-ending side dishes painted an image of an exotic land.
My motivations for visiting Korea, though, were not as simple as seeing folk dances and villages, but rather to observe the country's natural side. As a TIES Travel Ambassador, I was given a tip that the South Korean national ecotourism organization known as Ecotourism Korea or "EK" had joined TIES. One of my goals, therefore, was to investigate and hear from EK about their ideas for preserving their beautiful country and promoting ecotourism in Korea.
Fortunately for me, arrangements were made with the aid of Dr. Mihee Kang to contact EK's Chairman, Professor Kim, at the prestigious Seoul University.
My meeting with Professor Kim and his graduate students was interesting on many levels because of the sheer amount of insight they had on the environmental situation in South Korea. The graduate students were kind enough to give me an introduction to the various projects the department was running; ranging from carbon offsetting to the designation of protected habitats throughout the country.
One of the more interesting topics touched upon was the ongoing process of trying to initiate re-forestation projects in North Korea. For those familiar with the political, social, and economic issues with the country you can understand what a slow and complicated process this is, but at least steps are being taken to usher in sanctions for environmental protection.
During my interview with Professor Kim I began to understand that EK's role in Korea was heavily steeped in advocacy and policy work. His efforts were directed at working closely with Korean ministries to put policies into place to maintain and preserve sights important to both plant and animal life. EK's ultimate goal of making ecotourism a positive force in the country, it seem, is slowly becoming realized.
Though EK does not engage in the running of eco-tour trips and deals only loosely with the hospitality industry at the moment, my experience traveling in Korea independently showed me a great potential for the industry. Koreans take great pride in their natural capital; every community has established green spaces; hiking has become a pastime for both the young and old; and locally grown produce is the cornerstone to every Korean meal. Jeju, an island known as, "the Hawaii of Korea," has recently been designated a natural wonder of the world by UNESCO and with this honor comes sanctions to protect the island’s bio-diversity.
Maybe the biggest factor working in Korea's favor is the relatively low volume of international tourism. With more tourists come more development, commercialization and waste. Although throngs of tourists from neighboring nations have discovered Korea, their activities are mostly restricted to Seoul.
But with the city ever expanding, increased interest from international tourists and economic incentives, we can only hope that EK's and TIES' efforts to promote ecotourism lead to an ideal resolution for all.
But for now if you are thinking of your next trip, hop on a plane to Korea and enjoy the diversity of the people, food and nature I guarantee you will not be disappointed!