Beyond Seoul, the Korean Wave and Gangnam Style, Korea’s popularity is rising in the meetings market with unique facilities and cultural offerings such as those found on Jeju Island, where Graeme Kemlo recently visited.
WORDS AND IMAGES BY GRAEME KEMLO
Among the more obvious ingredients for Korea’s success is its willingness to embrace the modern and the ancient. Nowhere is it more evident that on its southern-most landmass, Jeju Island, equidistant from China, Japan and South Korea.
Here, rising from the sea is its modernist seven-storey glass and steel International Convention Centre, guarded at its entrance by a large hareubang – one of hundreds of smiling “grandfather” statues that dot the island and are believed to offer protection against demons. Their phallic heads also signify another purpose, with small replicas often given to women to help with fertility.
Not that this island appears to need fertility – its fields are filled with tea plantations as one of the world’s top three green tea producers; it grows a sought-after giant tangerine, the hallabon, named after its Mt Halla volcano; and its women include the legendary Haenyeo divers, who have literally put the food on the tables for their husbands for centuries.
At Seongsan Ilchubon, a volcanic islet that is popular to climb at sunset, local women can be found negotiating the steep steps in high heels. I watched an elderly Haenyeo struggle with a massive load of seaweed on her back up the 100 plus steps from her dive site below. The Haenyeo’s husband, carrying an empty shopping basket, met her halfway, nodded, but offered no assistance, turned around and hurried back uphill (to unlock the car?) while the woman laboured on up, bent double with the load.
While this role-reversal may clash with Korea’s modern male-oriented society and business culture, it is one of the social curiosities that makes this an intriguing place to visit, to host a meeting, or deliver an incentive reward. But you’d better hurry as the Haenyeo are reportedly an endangered species with young women declining to take on the arduous diving jobs that require them to hold their breath for almost two minutes while free-diving to 20 metres.
Jeju is a self-governing province and is the largest of Korea’s islands sitting on the Korea Strait to the south. It is 70 km wide and 40 km long, sub-tropical with four distinct seasons and popular as the “Hawaii” of Korea. For an island of less than 560,000 people, Jeju punches above its weight, already claiming the title as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature.
The Jeju International Convention Centre less than one hour from the airport is impressive both outside and in. It has five major spaces for meetings spread across five floors so concurrent events are simple: the main hall can stage a plenary for 4300, another can accommodate events of up to 2450, while the smallest rooms can fit 300. It even has a full duty free store, shops and restaurants. The government is spending 3.3 billion Won ($A3 million) on “green” renovations of the 10-year-old building, which has hosted United Nations meetings on the environment, general meetings of PATA, the Asia Development Bank, APEC ministerial meetings, plus association and corporate events.
The convention centre is in the Jungmun Resort area where within 15 minutes you will find 18 hotels offering more than 2800 hotel rooms, with almost half being five-star. A new “Anchor Hotel” was under construction adjacent to the ICC when we visited – it is designed with 282 rooms, 186 condominium suites and meeting space.
Nearby is The Shilla, a glamorous five-star resort overlooking the South Pacific, with 429 rooms and 28 suites, sprawling clifftop gardens, indoor and outdoor pools plus a luxury glamping area and a private beach house. Its meeting rooms can host up to 900 (theatre), 500 (banquet), with smaller rooms for 120 to 450, and outdoor options for 200 (banquet) or 300 (reception). The Shilla also has an airport check-in desk and free transfers for guests.
Next door the Hyatt Regency has 223 rooms of 33 to 36 square metres with balconies overlooking the ocean or Mt Halla. Two divisible ballrooms accommodate up to 280 and 100 (banquet), 400 and 200 (theatre) while outdoors there’s a clifftop lawn that suits up to 1000 (reception) or 800 (banquet).
To enhance the cultural experience for delegates, or to offer high achievers an authentic Korean stay, the 10-acre Seaes Resort offers traditional style accommodation in 26 private walled Korean bungalow villas with thatched roofs. Perfect for a group buyout, some villas have outdoor stone baths (yes, there are also indoor bathrooms), others are traditional Ondol rooms. Seaes caters to small meetings and banquets for up to 80 in its VIP Banquet Hall.
It also has established gardens in which outdoor banquets for up to 150 can be staged.
Seaes also has traditional Korean dishes, including variations on the ubiquitous kimchi (pickled cabbage) bulgogi ( beef marinated in soy sauce), and bibimbap (rice and vegetables). Their Jeonbokjuk (abalone porridge) was delicious – I ordered it both mornings of our stay.
In the Jungmun resort area is another cultural phenomenon: dozens of museums curating everything from teddy bears to tea, African items, chocolate, trick art, rare plants, with sex education on exhibition at Love Land. For an offsite event venue, we visited the Spirited Garden with its botanical collection including bonsai and rare trees. We were also taken into the inner sanctum, the Secret Garden (“no photos”), where high level international summits and G20 leaders’ dinners were held behind high stone walls.
Team-building activities can range from the extreme – a 10 hour hike up Mt Halla, at 1950 metres the tallest in South Korea, or a bike ride around the entire island in six days; to the sublime – walking in the cool of Jeju’s volcanic lava tubes, a UNESCO World Heritage site. We took a step back in time by visiting a folk village showing life in the late 1800s, including shamanistic village life – fortune teller, witch’s house, maiden’s shrine, villager altar, sea god shrine, and a “gate for honouring faithful housewife”.
Jeju is parading its green status through its unique “olle” walking paths which cover 200km along its south coast. Similar in concept to Spain’s pilgrim trail, Jeju intends to expand the 19 different routes, marked with blue and yellow ribbons, to paths accessing other parts of the island.
Typical of the entrepreneurial spirit that has seen South Korea rise to become one of Asia’s tigers, Jeju is also to get a $9 billion injection in the form of a 2.5 gigawatt windfarm offshore by 2019.
Looking to give Jeju a status similar to Singapore and Hong Kong, the South Korean government has approved a $3.2 billion development by a Malaysian company, which will add to the business events options for Jeju. Announced in November, it will occupy a 75 acre site with a 1km stretch of Jeju coastline. It is planned to include a casino (this element is yet to be officially approved) a shopping mall and condominiums, with three hotels. Developers reported they were in talks with Ritz Carlton for one of the hotels.