Paulo Coelho, a Brazilian novelist wrote "The Pilgrimage" in 1987, inspired by a walk along the 800Km long path. Today, El Camino de Santiago or St. James’ Way is beaten every year by over 100,000 visitors coming from all over the world, who are searching for a spiritual healing and rejuvenation.
While walking the trail, she met Paulo Coelho, who was then filming a documentary series about El Camino de Santiago. She also met a British girl she remembers as 'Henney' near the end of the journey. Ms. Suh and Henney were chatting about how great it was for them to walk the ancient path one night when Henney suggested what came as a revelation to her; if the journey was so great for us, why not build our own El Camino de Santiago in the homeland when we go back?
Ms. Suh recalled how beautiful and serene Jeju was when she was growing up in the island years ago. She came back to Jeju and explored “Olle,” the narrow local pathways formed by low-rising black stone walls snaking along hundreds of bucolic seaside towns. Ms. Suh realized that by restoring old paths and creating new roads for hikers to explore, she could easily build trail routes in the island that would match those in Spain.
Jeju Olle has soon proved to be an instant hit among Korean hikers who’ve been looking for an alternative way to enjoy the island. In its first year, some 3,000 hikers visited Jeju to enjoy Olle trails but the number soon exploded to 30,000 in the 2nd year of the program's inception. From January to September of this year, over 200,000 hikers are believed to have walked Olle trails.
Jeju has come a long way since it started its push for tourism, going through several ups and downs for the past three decades until it saw the success of Olle.
In 1970s and 1980s, when Jeju was Korea’s Hawaii, Koreans would visit Jeju for their honeymoon and revisit the island a few years later to commemorate their first visit. Hopping over some well-known tourist destinations by black cab limos or tour buses was the most preferred mode of enjoying the island back then. With the exception of a few hikers or cyclists who were willing to venture out to the far corners of the island, Jeju had remained one of the many well-manicured but prosaic tourist sites in Korea.
As Korean couples increasingly started to choose oversees resorts for their honeymoon during the 1990s, Jeju has gradually lost its lure as the top destination. The rent-a-car boom compensated for the lost honeymoon traffic to a degree though, as other tourists started to drive around the island looking for some hidden wonders of Jeju.
Fortunately for Ms. Suh and her Jeju Olle team, however, Jeju’s tourism industry saw another revolutionary leap in its tourism infrastructure beginning in the mid 2000s: the budget airline.
On the Seoul-Jeju route, long dominated by the duopoly of Korean Air and Asiana Air, Jeju Air and other no-frills airlines started to offer much cheaper tickets. The price of a return ticket from Seoul to Jeju has plummeted from as high as 200,000 won to 40,000 won (about US$40) within a year after they launched the service, crumbling the psychological barriers to Jeju for ordinary fliers. Budget airlines made them to rethink about the nature of travel to Jeju: Jeju is no more a destination for honeymoon or once-in-a-life-time trip, but a scenic island handy for a snap weekend excursion.
Thanks, in part, to the blockbuster success of the Olle trails, the number of annual visitors to Jeju passed 5 million mark this October, a month ahead of the schedule, despite the growing fear over the global swine flu epidemic.
And Olle is wining the hearts of Jeju natives as well. Whereas traditional tourists spent their travel budget in the big name hotels and resorts owned mostly by mainlanders, the money Olle hikers are spending is literally trickling down to the bottom of the Jeju economy.
Walking along the 15 Olle trail routs, hikers can easily spot ‘welcome’ signs posted by hundreds of local mom-and-pop stores and restaurants. For the first time in the history of Jeju tourism, tourists from the mainland are being truly welcomed by the Jeju natives.
Three years after she was first lured to El Camino de Santiago, Ms. Suh is now dreaming of attracting pilgrims of the world to Jeju, making the island an Asian center of the global eco-tourism. Can it happen? Judging from the reaction of some expats communities in Korea, the answer seems to be 'yes, maybe.'
The question I want to ask Ms. Suh next time I meet her; what happened to Henney, the British girl who first inspired her to start the Olle exploration three years ago? Maybe she will have to invite Henney to Jeju sometime and walk the Olle trails together.