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.

Is This French Ecoresort a Game-Changer?

[Above: Accommodations at the Villages Nature ecoresort, a collaboration by Euro Disney and its French partner, Pierre et Vacances, owner of Center Parcs Europe.
Photos courtesy Villages Nature]

France’s Villages Nature Blazes a New Trail for Sustainable Tourism

Over the course of four visits to the new Villages Nature resort outside of Paris, I have become convinced that the world now has a new model for sustainable resorts and their neighboring communities. On each visit, I developed a deeper appreciation for the design, the sustainability features, and the inspirational model Villages Nature represents.

My first visit, May of 2017, was during construction. Frank Heatherton, the Master Planner for the resort, gave me a tour. He shared a design that I believe is a potential game changer for sustainable tourism as it provides a high quality resort and tourism experience while mitigating the issues defined by the science of the Nine Planetary Boundaries put forth by the Stockholm Resilience Center.

Villages Nature launched on October 10, 2017. During my second visit, at the inauguration, I had the opportunity to speak with Joe Rohde, the Walt Disney Imagineer who contributed to much of the design of Villages Nature.

Part of the 300-acre Villages Nature resort.

“What were the key goals of Villages Nature?” I asked.

“We were trying to create utopian idea,” he responded. “Often sustainable architecture is executed in designs that are so modern-spirited they do not necessarily connect with a broad popular audience. This is a danger, because sustainability will mean nothing unless it is adopted by that broad audience. Our goal was to romanticize sustainability, to make it aspirational, to make it approachable, to make it poetic.”

“Then what were the key design strategies used to accomplish this?”

“We settled on symbolic language that infuses the entire site,” he said. “One in which circles and fluid forms are used to represent nature, and angular orthogonal forms represent human enterprise. These two are woven through each other to create harmonic compositions. In addition we treated the entire site as a metaphor of a garden. Gardens require our stewardship and care. Imagining the world as a garden allows a picture of nature in which human agency is always present. So landscapes of the park are all various exclamations of the idea of gardens, from vast natural forms like an English estate, to formality inspired by French classicism, the narrative mystery of Chinese gardens, and so on.”

From these conversations, I learned that despite Villages Nature paying no specific attention to the science or framework of the Nine Planetary Boundaries, the resort was operating with real promise to significantly address all nine of them. Here a new model for sustainable tourism for the world has been born, using Bioregional’s One Planet Living framework along with the expertise of the Walt Disney Imagineers and other team members like Thierry Haua.

The resort includes five themed areas:

  • The Aqualagon—a 9000 square meter water park.
  • The Promenade—an array of restaurants featuring local and organic food and shops featuring nature discovery items along with items to improve health and well being.
  • The Forest Legends—a playground with games designed to help families reconnect to nature.
  • The Belle Vie Farm—literally a farm-to-table opportunity coupled with ways for people to learn about growing their own food and cooking it.
  • The Extraordinary Gardens—four gardens themed to Earth, Fire, Air, and Water that provide games to learn the One Planet Living process and a meditative garden walk to connect with nature.

Map of Villages Nature shows the five themed areas, housing, and the pool..

My third visit I learned that the resort received the World Hospitality Award for “Best Initiative in Sustainable Development and Social Responsibility.” I also invited Villages Nature to participate in a pilot program for the new Blue Community Certification that includes the GSTC criteria, the 12 blue community strategies to protect, enhance, and restore coastal habitat and marine environments, and the One Planet Living framework.

From Marie Balman, the director of corporate social responsibility, I learned about the company’s commitment to operating in ways that benefit guests, employees, and other stakeholders. To date the resort has:

  • 40% of its supply chain from local businesses within 100 kilometers,
  • 82% of its employees from the local area,
  • had visits by 300 students from local schools,
  • and created 600 jobs.

My fourth visit was for Villages Nature’s one-year anniversary conference, on Leadership and Governance for Sustainable Tourism, co-hosted by Blue Community. We were able to present the Blue Community Certification to the resort. The certification has four levels, and Villages Nature achieved the highest.

I further learned more of its sustainability features:

  • The 18-kilometer geothermal system that heats not only all of Villages Nature but also 30% of the two Euro Disney theme parks. The system reduces CO2 by 9,000 tons a year.
  • A construction process that reused all excavated soil and diverted 98% of construction waste away from landfill.
  • A composting system that includes participation of waste separation in every cottage—zero waste to landfill.
  • A biodiversity plan that protects 72 species and brought back an additional 23.
  • The planting of 28,000 trees and 430,000 plants.
  • Water conservation efforts that keep the resort from ever tapping the aquifer.

In conclusion I offer you a few thoughts and impressions from my friends and colleagues who visited Villages Nature with me:

Villages Nature lets you enter in the magical world of a sustainable park that is beautifully designed. It is a park planned to let you think and learn about sustainability while you have fun and experience it individually as well as with your friends and family. It is very inspiring, and leaves you something beautiful inside. The Extraordinary Gardens and the Aqualagon were my favorite worlds. The Belle Vie Farm, was where I had my favorite food experience: a unique breakfast sitting surrounded by tea pots.” —Silvia Barbone

Villages Nature provides the perfect environment for family, friends, and guests to explore ways to ‘power-down’ in meaningful and fulfilling ways without compromising comfort or enjoyment.” —Rebecca Tobias

And from Joe Rohde:

“First of all, this is a place for a family to be together with each other, to experience the restorative calm of nature, and to have fun. After that, I hope people take time to imagine that this world they have experienced here could be built anywhere, in many climates, in many styles, and could become a model not for a utopian getaway, but for their own living communities.”

Villages Nature is nothing short of reinventing sustainable tourism.

We at Blue Community are now implementing projects in Florida where existing resorts are becoming more sustainable by integrating the Villages Nature model of the One Planet Living framework, the Blue Community strategies, and PM4SD (Project Management For Sustainable Development) skills.

Let us know if you want to bring this to your resort or community.