YEOSU - Long neglected by Seoul, the South Jeolla Province is hosting a three-month world expo on the theme The Living Ocean and Coast. Expo 2012 Yeosu Korea is being held in this South Korean coastal city of 300,000 on the Jeju Strait, hoping its future is as bright as its past.
"Yeosu used to be a gateway between Japan and China", says Bae Yong-tae, deputy governor of the province.
The city was also an important oil terminal. When Koreas modernization started in the 1960s, Yeosu was more or less ignored by the government --so was the South Jeolla Province. "The problem," says journalist Ryan Kim of the daily Dong-A newspaper, "is that dictators Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979, and Chun Doo-hwan, who was president from 1980 to 1988, put their home region first, located on the eastern coast of the peninsula, with cities like Busan, Puhan or Ulsan."
Politically speaking, the province has always had the reputation of being a rebel. It was the starting point of a huge uprising against the Japanese occupation in 1929; it then incurred the wrath of South Korean leaders harsh repression in 1948, during the struggle against communism, and again in 1980, when the army intervened in Gwanju against the movement for the democratization of the country.
The past has taken its toll on the region, whose population is currently slowly declining. The local fishing industry, which supplies 51% of the country's needs, is employing more and more Chinese sailors.
From fishing port to futuristic destination
But the development of the South Jeolla Province has now become a priority for the government, which has decided to bet heavily on tourism. The 2012 World Expo, which boasts a $1.9 billion budget and 106 attending countries is the perfect example of this new approach. More than 10 million visitors are expected to see the expo.
It took five years for the sparsely populated and heavily polluted industrial site to be developed into a tourist destination. A new high-speed railway now connects Yeosu to Seoul in 2h40. Additionally, the old sea route between the port city and Fukuoka in Japan was also revived for the expo.
Hopefully, this will be enough to bring in waves of tourists, who will then be able to enjoy a giant 6000 ton aquarium as well as a digital gallery with a 218 meter-long and 30 meter-high screen. But the main attraction is the Big-O where many large-scale events and performances will take place. "The event is meant to emphasize the importance of oceans to humanity, and the crisis that threatens them due to the overexploitation of resources and pollution," explains Kim Keun-soo, the expo's secretary general.
Visitors of the international event are also given the opportunity to discover the wealth of a region that does its best to enhance its natural and cultural heritage. From the site, you can access Odong Island, dubbed the "Island of Love," by foot. Entirely covered with wood, Odong is the gateway to the Hallyeohaesang national maritime park, and a very pleasant place for a walk.
From Odong, a shuttle boat takes you through some of the 365 islands that surround Yeosu, including Dolsan Island, where the Hyangiram (meaning "facing the sun") hermitage stands, in the shadows of the islands camellias. It is one of four major Korean monasteries erected in honor of the Buddhist goddess of compassion. Perched on the heights of Mount Geumosan, the hermitage is difficult to reach but the view of the sea is unique. At the feet of the monastery, the village of fishermen and oyster farmers is also worth stopping by to get a taste of the local flavors --including mussels and sun-dried oysters.
Going up the coast, visitors will discover the tea plantations of Boesong, a city whose green tea is renowned throughout Korea. Grown on the hillsides, the fields merge into forests of cedars and paint a landscape of great elegance even more beautiful on hazy days.
Finally, there is the Suncheon Bay ecological park. Caught between the Yeosu peninsula in the east and Goheung in the west, the marsh area protected since 2006-- offers a rare ecosystem. Covered with reeds, it offers visitors an impressive variety of migratory birds, mostly hooded cranes, but also Chinese egrets or spoonbills.
Eager to capitalize on this treasure, Suncheon --which also houses the medieval and fortified village of Nagan--will host an exhibition on the gardens of the world from April to October 2013. This should serve to hearten those who are concerned about the waning of interest in the region, once the Yeosu Expo 2012 draws to a close.
Read more from Le Monde in French