JEJU ISLAND, SOUTH KOREA — Off the coast of the Korean peninsula is an island that was once known as a honeymoon destination for locals, but has since drawn the interest of international tourists for its “warm and cozy” experience.

“People think Jeju is a small island, but in reality, its perimeter is more than 200 kilometers,” Ian Rhee of the Jeju Tourism Organization (JTO) told reporters on a recent familiarization tour. With a population of just over 660,000 people, Jeju Island has become a favorite among tourists for its breathtaking natural beauty.

For Filipinos enamored by Korean pop culture, especially its television dramas, competitive airline fares have made hopping on a plane to see their favorite show’s locations an easy option.

As tension continues to mount between the People’s Republic of China and South Korea over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense — the anti-ballistic missile system being set up by the United States Army to defend South Korea from threats from North Korea, China’s ally — tourism has taken a hit.

According to Forbes magazine, “Chinese authorities… ordered all of the countries’ online travel agencies to stop selling South Korea-related tours.”

The JTO admitted that the island’s tourism industry has felt the effect — after all, until recently, 85% of it’s foreign tourists came from China — but this has had a surprisingly positive effect for other visitors: other tourists can now enjoy a less crowded Jeju island.

South Korean nationals have already taken advantage of the situation, booking trips to explore its 26 hiking trails.

Since the problems with China, the South Korean government has taken a more aggressive stance in attracting visitors from the South East Asian market, including the Philippines.

“Tourism organizations have been focusing in Southeast Asia… we’ve been getting too many Chinese tourists but the government, now, could pay enough attention to Southeast Asia,” Mr. Rhee said.

JTO said that 8,980 Filipino tourists visited the island in 2016, and Mr. Rhee said they’re hoping to attract more than 10,000 this year with the easing of visa requirements.

Filipinos traveling to Jeju do not need to get a Korean visa (but they do if they plan to travel elsewhere in the country).

Philippine Airlines has started offering chartered flights to Jeju Island via Makati’s Rakso Travel, which offers four day/three night and five day/four night travel packages to the island.

A more encompassing option may soon be available. As Mr. Rhee explained, tourists on a package tour by a designated travel agency can also visit Gimpo, Seoul, and Busan visa-free for five days if they enter through Jeju. But he emphasized that this option “only applies to package tours but there has to be designated travel agencies.”

The problem is there are no designated Philippine travel agencies yet.

“The Philippines has not yet designated those travel agencies. I don’t know how long it takes. The Korean government has to coordinate with the Philippine government to designate those travel agencies,” said Mr. Rhee.

BusinessWorld reached out to Tourism Undersecretary Katherine S. de Castro for an update on this, had no reply by press time.

A recent Korean romantic comedy titled Maendorong Ttottot, which translates to Warm and Cozy, chose to use Jeju Island as its location since the island displayed these precise characteristics.

Jeju is literally warmer than the mainland, and also receives more rain, conditions that proved conducive to the “growth of sensitive and fastidious trees,” according to a JTO brief on the O’sulloc Tea Museum.

The O’sulloc Tea Museum, which opened in 1970, is found in Andeok-myeon, Seogwi-po, Jeju and has a scenic view of fields of green tea plants.

Still, there is not that much farmland on the island, so fresh seafood takes centerstage on the dining tables of Jeju’s homes and restaurants.

“Haenyo or female sea divers is one of the significant cultures in Jeju island,” said Mr. Rhee, adding: “Last year, in December, UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designated haenyo as an intangible cultural heritage of humanity.”

It is thanks to these haenyos — who hold demonstrations of their skills at the seaside of Seongsan Ilchubong in the afternoons — that one can enjoy a plate of grilled abalone on the island.

Jeju-do City lights up at night, and visitors can stroll through the streets listening to streets performers strumming their tunes and trying out the street food like odeng (fish cake) while deciding which of the city’s many restaurants and cafés to have diner at.

One must-have meal is samgyupsal — Jeju black pig barbecue — with thick slices of pork cooked on table-side barbecue grills. You can ask the friendly servers to grill them for you, or have the youngest person at the table grill the pork as the Koreans do. Wrap the cooked meat in fresh lettuce leaves with a bit of kimchi, and accompany it with a Soju Bomb — a shot of soju mixed into a short glass of beer — which is a perfect way to end a night of walking around Jeju.

Those dreaming of seeing sakura – Japan’s famous cherry blossoms — up close need not go to Japan as Jeju island also boasts of these trees which bloom in early March. The main streets of the island are lined with them, and the public parks are filled with the pinkish white flowering trees. Best to catch them as the sun starts to set, casting a mesmerizing, magical yellow light on the scene.

Jeju island also celebrates a Canola Flower festival with bright yellow canola flowers and sakura trees lining a long stretch of road. Traffic may be a problem, but there are designated parking areas at the start of the canola stands, and the walking is a pleasure surrounded by flowers dancing to the spring breeze.

Also worth visiting is the Jusangjeolli Cliff in Daepo. The spot is popular for its hexagonal rock pillars, formed when lava erupted from the Halla-san mountain. The blue sea and the oddly shaped dark pillars make for a calming view.

For those prepared to go on a quick hike, Seongsan Ilchulbong Peak — the result of an ancient volcanic eruption — is the perfect spot. Designated as natural monument No. 420 in 2000, according to the JTO, it is also a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, World Natural Heritage and Global Geopark. A 30- to 45-minute walk along the trail will lead you to an observation deck with a breathtaking view of Halla-san and hills around Jeju.

The café Monsant d’Aewol is owned by Kwon Ji Yong, an international rapper better known as G-Dragon, the leader of Korea’s “national boy band,” Big Bang. The café’s facade is made of mirrors that reflect the sunset, while the interiors reflect the international pop star’s aesthetic as seen in his instagram feed.

Fans of G-Dragon flock to the café hoping to get a glimpse of one of Korea’s most famous pop stars, as he sometimes visits. According to our tour guide, Kim Tae Hyung, the price of real estate in the area increased after G-Dragon built the café.

Beside Monsant is Bonmal, a café and guesthouse where Warm and Cozy shot most of its scenes.

If they can’t see their idols in the flesh, it is now possible for K-pop fans to have holographic dates with them, dance and sing to their latest hits, and watch their concerts at the Play KPop Museum.

Another place that fans of Korean pop culture can visit is the Teddy Bear Museum where one of the earlier K-drama hits Goong (Princess Hours) was shot. Take a tour around the museum and gave your photo taken with teddy bear versions of Steve Jobs, Marilyn Monroe, and Charlie Chaplin.

With the recent resurgence of popularity of Korean dramas in the Philippines, fans can relive their favorite scenes from the following series that took their One True Pairing (OTP) to Jeju Island: My Name is Kim Sam Soon, Boys over Flowers, Secret Garden, and Playful Kiss.

BusinessWorld went to Jeju Island with other members of the Philippine press upon the invitation of the Korean Tourism Organization.

Incidental information

  • The famous Jeju Volcanic clay pore mask, a hit among skincare enthusiasts in the Philippines, can be found in Innisfree stores around the city.
  • The Korean government has said that 5,400 free Wi-Fi zones will be established by the end of next year.
  • Going around the island can be done by buses, private car rentals, or government-accredited taxis.
  • Those with won to spare will be able to stay for a few days at the luxurious condominium units of Landing Jeju Development Co. Ltd. which opened on April 25. Each unit has three rooms and two bathrooms and may be rented by families for a few days stay. The rest of the development, which includes three condominium buildings; three-, four-, five-, and six-star hotels; a shopping center; a convention center; a destination spa; and a theme park, is scheduled to open in June 2019.