Jeju growing as investment and tourism gold mine

With its idyllic beaches, lush scenery and posh resorts, Jeju has long been popular as a honeymoon island.

But in recent years, the autonomous South Korean province, located off the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, has been transforming itself. It now appears to be shaping up to become the equivalent of Singapore's Sentosa - a hot spot for overseas investors as well as leisure tourists, business tour groups and international conferences.

By 2017, Jeju's population of 600,000 will even have its own integrated resort - Resorts World Jeju (RWJ), a US$1.8 billion (S$2.4 billion) development occupying 250ha of land, said to be the largest on the island.

It is a joint project between Chinese developer Landing International Development and Genting Singapore, the driving force behind Singapore's first integrated resort, the hugely successful Resorts World Sentosa (RWS).

Welcoming the new development at its groundbreaking ceremony earlier this month, Jeju Governor Won Hee Ryong said: "We are confident that this iconic resort will further strengthen Jeju island's reputation as a holiday paradise."

Since the local government started offering visa-free travel from 2006 and relaxed rules from 2010 for foreigners to gain residency after investing in property, Jeju has become a tourism and investment gold mine, drawing a record 12 million visitors last year.

Foreign investment in property has also been growing, and the upcoming RWJ is just one of the six ambitious projects earmarked by the Jeju Free International City Development Centre with the goal of putting Jeju on the world map.

A medical hub developed by China's state-owned Greenland Group to the tune of US$900 million is slated to open later this year, while an aerospace museum and an education hub featuring two elite girls' schools - North London Collegiate School and Canada's Branksome Hall - have been in operation since last year.

A resort-style residential complex and a science park are still in the works.

"Jeju used to be close-minded towards foreigners, but not any more," Jeju Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) adviser Ko Byung Doo told The Straits Times, adding that the island has developed a lot of infrastructure in recent years to boost its appeal as a "treasure island".

Jeju's open-minded policy has also helped grow its Mice (meetings, incentive travel, conferences and exhibitions) business. It is second to Seoul as a Mice venue and has hosted several high-profile events, including the 2009 ASEAN-Korea Commemorative Summit.

Conference facilities with scenic views are ubiquitous on the island, so some organisers, like Hyatt Regency Jeju, throw in a local twist to their events to impress guests. The hotel hires haenyo, or women divers, to cut and serve platters of raw shellfish and abalone which they personally pick from coastal waters.

"Guests are very fond of taking photos with the women divers as a piece of memory from Jeju," the hotel's spokesman said.

The new RWJ, when fully ready by 2019, will offer more infrastructure for Mice too.

RWJ is five times bigger than its Singapore counterpart and comprises a foreigners-only casino, a family theme park, a water park, themed retail and food complexes, hotels and a destination spa. Thus it is expected to be a "game changer in Jeju that we believe can help the province attain its goal of surpassing 15 million tourists by 2018", Genting Singapore's executive chairman, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay, said in a statement.

For now, the number of visitors to Jeju still lags far behind Sentosa, which drew 18.6 million visitors between April 2013 and March 2014.

But will RWJ be a threat to its Singapore counterpart?

Mr Amos Boon, managing director of Singapore-based event management agency Launch Group, which organises K-pop events, thinks RWS "still holds an added advantage in terms of accessibility and attractions".

"Potentially, Jeju may grow as a tourist destination but every other city will also be constantly upgrading itself to cope with competition," he said.

An island paradise to Chinese visitors

There is a pedestrian-only shopping street in South Korea's Jeju island that stands out for its unusual Chinese name - Baojian.

Once a student hangout, the street was renamed in 2011 to celebrate the arrival of the largest tour group to the country then - 12,000 employees of Chinese health-care company Baojian, who were there on a reward trip.

It has since become the epicentre of Chinese tourism, personifying the Chinese "invasion" of the volcanic island, which is 2.5 times bigger than Singapore.

A record-breaking 2.82 million Chinese visitors set foot on Jeju last year - 55 per cent more than in 2013 - and they are the biggest spenders driving the island's estimated one trillion won (S$1.2 billion) duty-free business.

Tourists are lured by its proximity (over an hour by plane from Shanghai and 2.5 hours from Beijing) and no-visa system, as well as the island's idyllic feel and natural wonders.

"Our air is very clean, and we have mountains, forests, beaches and clear water.

"They like our food, and they like Korean culture - that's why they come," Mr Cho Jin Hun, marketing director of Jeju Convention and Visitors Bureau, told The Straits Times.

China also commands a lion's share of Jeju's Mice (meeting, incentive, convention and exhibition) business, overtaking Japan since 2010, said Mr Cho.

Direct-selling company Amway China, for one, took 25,000 employees to Jeju for an incentive tour last year.

Some of China's new rich not only travel to Jeju for holiday, they snap up property, too.

Since the so-called "investment immigration system" went into effect in 2010, Chinese land ownership has soared 300 times from 2009 to hit 5.9 sq km last year, government data showed.

More than 900 Chinese citizens have also been granted an F2 long-term residency status, after meeting the criterion of investing at least US$500,000 (S$678,000) in a resort or condominium.

Heilongjiang Benma Industrial Group chairman Jiang Xianyun, who invested 63 billion won (S$76.8 million) in 2011 in a project to build a supposedly seven-star resort complex, was the first to gain permanent residency under this programme.

But the Chinese boom is not without its own set of challenges. While the Jeju government is happy to woo foreign investment, many residents are unhappy about the rising property prices and xenophobia has reared its ugly head.

Activists lobbied against environment damage when construction sites started sprouting too close to the revered Mount Halla.

Many went online to lash out against a Hollywood-esque Amway sign displayed prominently at the iconic Seongsan Sunrise Peak to welcome the company's employees last year, saying it was unbecoming and excessive, Yonhap news agency reported.

In a reassuring move, Jeju governor Won Hee Ryong, elected last June, tried to curb speculative foreign investments by reviewing and tightening rules on existing projects.

For instance, the groundbreaking of Resorts World Jeju, an integrated resort jointly developed by China's Landing International Development and Genting Singapore, was originally slated for June 24 last year but was delayed until earlier this month.

"I will give Jeju islanders the priority so as to push for development in a way that preserves the value of Jeju island," he was cited as saying by Yonhap.

This article was first published on February 28, 2015.
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