The Greening of Gritty Ulsan

? Destination Stewardship Report – Autumn 2020 ?

Ulsan, industrial powerhouse of South Korea, wasn’t known for its ecotourism opportunities. Indeed, the city was planning to clear-cut its riparian bamboo forest until local residents and NGOs stepped in. Dr. Mihee Kang and Seok Yoon explain what happened next, including the key role played by a pro-green national government.

Urban Ecotourism Brightens a Korean City of Heavy Industry

By Dr. Mihee Kang and Seok Yoon

Ulsan’s industrial zone. Photo: Courtesy of City of Ulsan

A city known for its heavy industry has transformed itself in part with an ecotourism approach. In the 1980s, pollution so bad that the city’s central Taehwa River became known as the “River of Death”. With great effort the city has cleaned and beautified the river and its surroundings, which actually now serves as a sanctuary for salmon and migratory birds, and is home to a 2 km long bamboo forest.

That city is Ulsan, one of Korea’s seven major cities, with a population of 1.2 million people and occupying an area 1.7 times that of Seoul. Located in the southeastern corner of the Korean Peninsula, Ulsan was designated as a specific industrial zone in 1962 and became a “metropolitan city” in 1997, functioning like a separate province. As Korea’s largest industrial cluster for automotive, shipbuilding, and petrochemical factories, Ulsan registers the highest gross domestic product (GDP) per capita in Korea.

Cherished by the local people, the Taehwa River was originally a sandy river with a variety of fish types enjoying the river . But along with rapid industrial development came more houses built along the river, with unpurified domestic sewage dumped into it.

At one point the city government planned to cut all the riverside bamboo trees for flood management. But citizens and local NGOs took issue with the plan and kept the forest as it was.

Ulsan’s Taehwa River with the Samho Village greenbelt on the right side. Photo: Courtesy of City of Ulsan

In 2000, the public and private sectors started working together on managing the forest by thinning the trees and improving the sewage treatment system. After years of such collaboration, the river and its banks have been largely restored with birds and bamboo abound.

Saving the Habitat

The Simni Bamboo Grove extends 2 km with the bamboo forest being home to about 48 bird species. For Ulsan citizens it is now a source of pride. Half its length is open to human enjoyment of the dense bamboo forest and fully half is reserved for birds.

This revitalization compelled the national Ministry of Environment to designate the Taehwa River area as a “Korean Ecotourism Destination” in 2013. This designation requires regular sustainability assessments based on the GSTC Destination Criteria. It also required development of the Taehwa River Ecotourism Association to ensure good management that includes public participation. These results are the fruits of collaborative efforts of its citizens, several NGOs, industry, and city government.

Taehwa River, the lifeline of Ulsan, is an exemplary model of an ecological river located in an urban area. It draws global attention, is cherished by citizens and visitors as a leisure area and serves as an ecological space that reminds them of the importance of nature and environment.

There is a total of 140 species of birds, including 22 species of migratory birds in the summer. In the winter, the area sees over 50 species of migratory birds including 40,000 rooks and jackdaws around the river environment. Some 8,000 egrets migrate to Ulsan every summer – the largest population of egrets in Korea. Ulsan is their only urban breeding ground in Korea, and is the only urban place to see the egrets’ magnificent group dance.

White egrets speckle the riverside forest in Ulsan. Photo: Courtesy city of Ulsan

Working with Neighbors

Along with the joys of viewing the magnificent rooks, jackdaws, and egrets came bad smells, noise, and bird droppings that were not appreciated by many nearby residents. The clever solution was for volunteers to start cleaning the bird droppings from residents’ cars early in the morning. Eventually, the city government provided funding to the Taehwa River Ecotourism Association to continue what the volunteers had started.

Car washers clean bird droppings from residents’ cars. Photo: Courtesy Taehwa River Ecotourism Association

The Association now cleans 30,000 to 32,000 cars per year during the November to March migration of the messy rooks and jackdaws. The Association regularly holds public discussion sessions and training classes for residents to share the reasons for protection and the strategy for co-living with birds.

The Taehwa River Ecotourism Association has introduced ecotourism to Samho and other villages with bamboo forests along the river, inviting residents to open new ecofriendly businesses including guesthouses, cafes, souvenir shops, ecoguide operators, and so on. The Association supported a social cooperative establishment that operates guesthouses. They also run a ‘birding school’ and ‘birding tours’ every winter to enhance visitor awareness of migratory birds and the importance of their protection.

Funding and Results

The national Ministry of Environment and the city jointly give a subsidy of about USD 85,000 a year for the Association’s ecotourism related activities. The city also provides administrative support and has offered new jobs for nearby residents in ecotourism. Under Korean national policy, designated ecotourism destinations get priority for ecofriendly energy solutions, so the city government has installed solar panels on the roofs of 679 neighborhood houses.

Strolling through the Simni Bamboo Forest at river’s edge. Photo: Courtesy city of Ulsan

Through many community-based ecotourism development initiatives, the Samho neighborhood has transformed itself from one of the poorest in Ulsan to a prosperous ecovillage, known now with pride as “Samho Birds Village.”

Tourism’s economic impacts have been very positive, largely supported by domestic visitors and with a number of festivals throughout the year, notably a springtime flower festival. The city regularly monitors those economic impacts, along with visitor satisfaction and environmental impacts of tourism in the Taehwa River area.

There are still many challenges for the city to confront to be a more sustainable destination. Both the Association and the city government are GSTC members, looking always for ideas and inspiration to continue that journey. But, clearly the successes they have attained can already provide inspiration for others.

This article was prepared by Dr.Mihee Kang, GSTC Asia Pacific Director, and Mr.Seok Yoon of Ulsan Metropolitan City. Dr. Kang has assessed the Taehwa Ecotourism Destination in 2016 and 2019 on behalf of the Korean Ministry of Environment using the Korean Ecotourism Management Sustainability Assessment Tool. The tool was developed based on the GSTC Destination Criteria. Mr.Seok Yoon worked previously for a local environmental NGO and is now serving as a city government servant in the role of ecotourism management in the Taehwa River area.

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