This is the first in a series of articles shedding light on hidden tourism spots in Korea. ― ED.
By Do Je-hae
MUNGYEONG ― A group of some 50 ``Korea Tourism Supporters'' selected by the Korea Tourism Organization
(KTO) visited this remote town in North Gyeongsang Province over the weekend, not knowing quite what to expect.
At first glance, the itinerary provided by the KTO seemed like a routine program, lined up with visits to the mountains and several museums, among other activities.
But by the end of the two-day stay, many visitors were surprised with how much tourism potential lies hidden here.
``A survey last year showed that Mungyeong placed third on a list by journalists of most recommended places to visit in Korea,'' Hwang Yong-dae, vice mayor of the town said.
Participants agreed that Mungyeong was a good example of how ``storytelling'' can successfully be applied to attract tourists. Each venue on the itinerary had a story deeply rooted in tradition and history.
For outsiders, the city of Mungyeong is mainly associated with the ``Mungyeong Saejae,'' a scenic mountain pass where the old road from Busan to Seoul passed over the Sobaek mountains and out of the Gyeongsang region.
But not many Koreans know what the word ``Saejae'' means. A tour guide explained that it means ``a trail that is so steep and harsh that even the birds must take a break.''
The muddy trail is not only a good way to get some exercise, but also a journey back to ancient Korea.
It is now a part of the breathtaking Mungyeong Saejae Provincial Park, which also houses models of traditional Korean houses and palaces. They are often used as settings for films and TV dramas with historical themes.
Traditional taverns are located amid the bushes, where they serve Korean tea and rice cake for visitors and feature folk song performances.
The parkland takes up a significant portion of Mungyeong's total area.
A visit to a home of the young Park Chung-hee (1917-1979), the former president who led the nation's industrialization, offered a glimpse of the private side of the military dictator.
During the last few years of the Japanese occupation (1910-1945), Park taught for several years at a primary school here for several years, before he quit his teaching post to enroll at the Manchukuo Imperial Army Academy in 1940.
The primary school and the house he lived in are both preserved as museums.
``Park was particularly attached to our town and considered it his second home,'' an official from the Mungyeong city administration said. ``It was Park who prohibited vehicle entry into the Mungyeong Saejae to preserve its natural beauty.''
The Coal Museum provides the background explanation to the region's somewhat depressing reality ― the demise of a key industry that has led to a decreasing population and economic hardship.
Before the 1980s, Mungyeong was the nation's biggest producer of coal after Gangwon Province. But many of the coal mines were closed during the Chun Doo-hwan regime as demand continued to slide.
The regional economy has since turned its focus on developing tourism and agriculture.
At the height of the mining days, the population here reached 160,000. But now the population is around 80,000.
The decrease has been one of the biggest headaches for Mungyeong Mayor Shin Hyun-guk.
Built in 1999, the Coal Museum is set up in Gaeun, which was once the heart of the mining district here. It pays homage to the miners who once sustained the region's economy. Visitors can experience first-hand what mining was like in those days inside the tunnels that were actually used for coal production.
Because Mungyeong is still unknown to residents in the metropolitan area, they tend to think that it is far away from Seoul. But actually it is just slightly less than two hours from Seoul by car. Given good traffic conditions, one can get there from Seoul in 90 minutes and enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities, including rafting, golf and mountain biking.
Foreign envoys who visited Mungyeong on this occasion said that they were generally impressed with the quality of the tourism venues, but cited ``incomprehensible English signs'' as a major hindrance.
Some stressed the need for a shopping center for the region's agricultural specialties ― apples and tea.
The ``Korea Tourism Supporters'' is a pet project of KTO President Lee Charm. Composed of both Koreans and non-Koreans, the group works with local governments to exchange ideas on how best to develop the country as a tourist attraction.
Lee has often said that his goal is to transform Korea into a tourism power like Switzerland, another mountainous country like Korea.
``There is no reason why a place like Mungyeong should not be able to host events like the Davos Forum,'' Lee said.
While the idea of hosting an international forum here is still new to many Koreans, Mungyeong is hoping to host the 2015 Military World Games.
Held every four years, the games are a multi-sport event for military sportspeople, organized by the International Military Sports Council (CISM) since 1995.
For more information on the Korea Tourism Supporters program, visit
http://cafe.naver.com/koreasupporters or call the KTO at 02-729-9466.