Cooperation on Jeju Island

Seonheul village on Jeju Island has undergone several transformations throughout its history, but in the last ten years, community-based tourism has become a mainstay — bolstering conservation, the local economy, and the social fabric of the village. Dr. Mihee Kang and Jeryang Ko explain how stakeholders came together to establish a social cooperative that changed the future of the village.

Power of Working Together: A Lesson from a Ramsar Wetland Village in Jeju, South Korea

Many government-supported rural development schemes focus too heavily on infrastructure; many villagers don’t know how to run a business. By contrast, the Korean village of Seonheul on Jeju Island has established a local business that would ensure economic sustainability even without government financial support. The goals were for all stakeholders to participate, with the village as the leader, and for profits to be distributed widely. This ‘social cooperative’ was just one feature of the area’s communal conservation and ecotourism development, which has been underway for years.

Residents of all ages participate in roundtable meetings, where they can share resources, concerns, and ideas. [All photos courtesy of Seonheul Village]

Seonheul lies inland on Jeju Island. This southernmost and largest island of South Korea has a population of around 670,000. It was formed by the eruption of an underwater volcano about 2 million years ago. Today, there are nine inhabited islands and 55 uninhabited islands in its administrative boundary. Jeju Island has been designated as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site, a Biosphere Reserve, and a Geopark.

Seonheul is an agricultural village with about 900 residents in 2021. It is one of 29 Korean ecotourism destinations designated by the Korean Ministry of Environment that are designed to protect nature and support community-based ecotourism development.

Hikers pause to admire the local tree species during a guided ecotour in Dongbaekdongsan.

A key site in the village is a gotjawal (rocky lava) volcanic forest called Dongbaekdongsan (or Camelia Hill), which is included in the biosphere reserve and the geopark. It is surrounded by an evergreen forest with a relatively warm climate at an elevation of less than 100m. Dongbaekdongsan was formed by lava as thin as tomato juice, which formed a plate at the base of the forest, eventually creating the wetlands of today.

Around 0.59 km2 of those wetlands, centered on ‘Meunmulkak’, have been designated a Ramsar Wetland. Dongbaekdongsan is rich in biodiversity; 13 of its more than 370 types of plants and 900  animal species are protected. There are more than 100 freshwater springs that are used for sacred prayers, drinking water for residents and animals, as well as for bathing water.

Forming a Committee with Stakeholders

Residents’ participation in the conservation and ecotourism development of Dongbaekdongsan (Camelia Hill) can be divided into three stages: (i) before 1981, (ii) after 1981, and (iii) after 2010. Until the early 1980s, Dongbaekdongsan was used as a village communal ranch and for water. There was a village forestry club that oversaw decision-making and enforced the rules of how the forest was used. This changed in 1981, when it was designated a Jeju Special-Governing Province Monument No.10 by the national government, due to its unique location as a natural forest in the center of the mountainous regions of Jeju. By this time, residents no longer depended on its resources. Water, wood, and charcoal were not the main necessities since sources for fuel changed, and a public water supply was introduced to the village, ultimately changing the village lifestyle.

In 2010, the Ministry of the Environment designated Dongbaekdongsan as a Protected Wetland and implemented capacity-building programs for the residents to protect its resources. From this point on, ecotourism and eco-education became the focus of the residents as a vehicle for conservation and a wise use of the resources through participation.

The following year, in 2011, the Village Council (VC) formed Dongbaekdongsan Conservation and Management Council (DCMC) , inviting stakeholders surrounding Dongbaekdongsan to join, such as provincial and municipal governments, environmental NGOs, experts, research institutes, and other related organizations. The Village Council leader is also the president of the DCMC. The DCMC meets every quarter to bring together outside stakeholders to discuss issues related to conservation and ecotourism development of the Dongbaekdongsan. However, the final decision is made at the village general assembly.

Learning Together, Sharing Responsibility, and Making Decision s Collectively

The VC internally holds resident meetings three times a year for residents to share information, prevent alienation, discuss responsibilities, and share benefits together. Once a year, a roundtable meeting is held for all residents to discuss the vision for the village.

The first roundtable meeting was held in February 2014. At least 100 -130 residents from all age groups attended the roundtable meeting. Each year, one table is saved for village children of all ages that allows them to proudly participate in village discussions and in the decision-making process as members of the village.


Members of the Village Council come together to discuss tourism strategies and divide up leadership responsibilities amongst each other.

Resident-led Conservation, Restoration, Monitoring, and Documentation

The VC also organizes capacity building training sessions for its residents regularly so the residents can take leadership in conservation and tourism development. Ecological monitoring by a group of residents is an important part of the ongoing training programs.

The ecological monitoring group consists of about 10 people including 5-6 residents, one expert, and 2-3 people from ecotourism associations and/or advisory groups. Since 2011, the group surveys ecological resources and monitors ecological changes monthly in Dongbaekdongsan. Based on the results of their activities, restoration of endangered species is continued by the village and/or the environmental agencies. The village also has a monitoring program engaging local students led by the village eco-teachers combined with the advice of a local professional organization. Currently, a few books about camellia trees, local grasses, and ferns of Dongbaekdongsan have been published by the VC in collaboration with resident monitoring groups and experts, and a book about mushrooms will be published soon.

Building a Village Enterprise — the ‘Social Cooperative Seonheulgot’

Rather than relying on government subsidies, the village worked to establish a business that would ensure economic sustainability even after government subsidies stop. The business structure was to ensure that all stakeholders would participate, with the village as the primary leader, and that the profit from the business would be distributed widely.

An example of village ecotourism promotional material.

After discussion and deliberation for many years on the type of business required, a collective decision was made during a roundtable discussion with 130 residents in attendance: To create the ‘Social Cooperative Seonheulgot.’ Its objective was ‘conservation of Dongbaekdongsan and residents’ happiness’.

Resident concerns and satisfaction are monitored regularly. Currently, Seonheulgot manages the Dongbaekdongsan Wetland Center and operates ecotours, local product sales, interpretation service, and community eco-education programs. Their two ecotour products are certified as low-carbon tours by the Korean Ministry of Environment.

All Age Groups Participate in Ecotourism Development

Older residents engage in literary and artistic activities, drawing, writing, and producing books that are sold as souvenirs.

A plastic-free event lunch box.

Residents in their 40s and 50s typically take the role of planning and leading ecotourism programs, while there are women’s groups in their 50s to 70s that conduct food-experience programs to provide tourists with local specialties. There are even teenagers who serve as eco-guides, and men in their 70s serving as “uncle” eco-guides. In addition, the annual village festival is a plastic-free event.

Residents Teach Nature and Culture at Schools, Drawing Outside Students

The Seonheul elementary school invites village eco-guides to its regular environmental classes. These trained village eco-teachers deliver classes for the students every week, teaching not only ecology but also traditional knowledge and cultural values of the village. In 2014, this elementary school nearly closed with only 20 students enrolled, but the popularity of this program has led students to transfer in from other provinces. Today, the school has over 110 students, 90% of which are transfer students.

The Power of a Cooperative Network and Intermediate Supporting Organization

Seonheul is regarded as a good case of community-based ecotourism development in Korea because the VC engaged with different stakeholders and it took a democratic process in the decision making. Support from Jeju Ecotourism Association and Jeju Ecotourism Center provided advice from the start of the village ecotourism development.

In Korea, there have been hundreds of rural village tourism development projects supported by the relevant government agencies. Many are government-led projects that focus too heavily on infrastructure development, and/or the villagers lacked the capacity to establish a sustainable tourism business structure.  Only handful of cases can be considered successful community-based tourism examples. But when the roles of each stakeholder are clear and when the local community takes primary responsibility, then sustainable community-based tourism is possible.

This is not to say that the Seonheul Village case is perfect. Conflicts between residents and/or stakeholders still exist, there is a risk of overtourism, and the community has experienced difficulties in operating a business that is economically sustainable. However, the future is certainly positive. This village has learned over the past 10 years to communicate and solve its problems together.

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.