Tourists Are Killing Last Traditional Village in Korea

by Simon Ahn and Taylor Beglane

Tourists snap pictures posed atop a hill in the Bukchon Hanok village.
 Kiki Sideris

Kim Yeon-Joo didn’t open her coffee and tea shop by choice. Visitors to Bukchon Hanok Village, one of South Korea’s oldest areas, would open her doors without invitation, invading her yard to climb on her large clay vases and leap off them for pictures. One night, as she prepared dinner, tourists entered the house without permission and asked for directions. She opened her business to better control anyone who wanted in.

“I used to open just the door, before opening the coffee place,” said Kim. “So many tourists burst into my house, stomping on wild flowers and taking pictures while jumping from the vases saying, ’1, 2, 3, say cheese.’”

Bukchon is the last of its kind, an ancient, traditional network of neighborhoods protected as a residential area despite the constant flow of tourists cramming its tight, winding streets. But its days as such are numbered; Kim and other villagers are begging South Korea’s government and Seoul Metropolitan Government to designate Bukchon a tourist area so that their village can be legally protected from foreign visitors.

Bukchon is at the center of a struggle familiar to other cities like New York City and Venice: the question of what to preserve and what to throw away. Nestled between two majestic palaces, Gyeongbok and Changdeok in central Seoul, Bukchon has stood since the Joseon dynasty some 600 years ago. Though at first home to the city’s nobility, many hanok buildings were torn down as Seoul endured war, natural disasters and rapid urbanization. The government intervened to protect Bukchon, preserving it as a snapshot of Joseon-era architecture, one of the very few sites to survive the shelling of Seoul in the Korean War. Unlike hanok villages recently constructed for tourists or recreated to mimic villages of old, Bukchon’s buildings date back to the 14th to 15th century, withstanding the growth of modern skyscrapers and city bustle.

Bukchon’s elaborate homes with layered, curved roofs have attracted droves of curious tourists, a number that climbs with each passing year. According to the Bukchon Traditional Cultural Center, only 30,000 people visited in 2007. That number bloomed to 318,000 in 2010, a near thousand percent increase within three years. Part of what’s driving Bukchon’s popularity is being featured in Korean television shows such as “2 Days & 1 Night” and “Personal Taste,” and it was heavily featured in Korean K-Pop star PSY’s music video for his single “I Luv It.”

Tourists clog its steep streets. Their laughter and cheer rouse residents early, and keep them awake late into the night. They loudly pose for group photo shots and flick cigarette butts into gardens. Most of them are from Korea or other Asian countries, such as China and Japan; the rest visiting from Western countries like the United States.

The biggest problem is the bathrooms. With no public toilets nearby, tourists have broken into hanok homes to stealthily use those indoors, only to flee when homeowners discover them. Others relieve themselves into plastic bags that they leave in the street, attracting swarms of flies.

On June 18, Seoul Metropolitan Government announced on its website that an 8-step plan to protect Bukchon’s residents from tourism pollution is being rolled out this month. Public restrooms, village visiting hours and training for tour guides and residents are all part of the plan.

It can’t be implemented soon enough for Kim, 56, who is filling in as head of the village committee while her sister is abroad. Tourists, both Asian and foreign, file in and out of her coffee and tea shop while she talks. Some bound up the steps with loud voices; others stop to take pictures of her foliaged courtyard while dressed in hanbok, traditional Korean garments.

Leaving the village despite its invasive tourist problem is out of the question for Kim. “I have to protect this house until the day I pass away. It’s a gift from my father,” she said.

Groups and families of tourists filed past a red sign emblazoned “No tourists allowed thank you for your cooperation/Our village is suffering from tourists!” On the street corner ten feet away stood two tour guides, walking information centers there to direct the flow of foot traffic and offer guidance to tourists. The sign was erected by the village committee; the tour guides were sent by Seoul’s government, an indication that Kim’s pleas for regulation are being acknowledged.

“It’s good for Korean sightseeing industry,” said Yang Jeongho, one guide, “especially because this town is between two palaces. That’s why so many tourists stop by here.”

Two tourists from Singapore, Collin Lim and Jasmine Wong, noticed the sign and got confused. “Because everybody who has came here before has said that this place is a very nice place,” said Lim. “We obviously thought that this is an area where everybody would love to visit. We totally did not know that tourists are not welcome here.”

Elmeri Andikainen, a 17-year-old visitor from Finland, is in Seoul to visit his father with a group of friends. He heard that Bukchon has a tourism problem, but came to see for himself. “I guess I’ll say it sort of raises awareness around these people and what they are like,” he said, “and maybe reasons for why Koreans are like Koreans are. We can maybe learn to respect their culture through exploring it.”

But respected is the last thing that Kim and other residents feel. As long as tourists continue to swarm Bukchon’s streets with noise and careless destruction, its villagers won’t sleep comfortably at night.

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