Cheonggyecheon – Streamside Parkland in the City Center
Tourism… For FREEEEEEEE?!?!?
What is the difference between a tourist spot and a tourist trap? Take this simple test:
1. Is there an admission fee?
2. Are there street vendors selling merchandise totally unrelated to the place you are visiting? (For example, a street vendor selling transformers knockoffs made in China at the base of Seoul Tower)
3. Are there street vendors selling merchandise only related to the place you are visiting? (For example, statue of liberty foam crowns that you will only ever wear once)
4. Inside the attraction, are there places to spend money (aside from vending machines)?
5. (In Korea’s case only) is there Japanese signage?
6. (In Asia’s case) Do government sponsored pictures of the attraction proudly feature white people enjoying the attraction?
7. After visiting the place, do you feel that it wasn’t quite as good as what you anticipated?
If you can answer yes to 2 or more of these questions, then odds are, the attraction is a tourist trap. In other words, the main goal of the place is to siphon money away from foreign tourists, especially Japanese people (as Japan is the closest wealthy country to Korea)
Why did I make this test? Because there is one tourist attraction in Seoul that answers “no” to all 7 of the questions. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that this place is a tourist trap, even though there are plenty of foreign tourists there taking pictures of their vertically arranged children RIGHT NOW!!!! What wonderful beautiful free of charge place is this that is that I speak of? Why, it’s Cheongyecheon, of course.
Cheonggyecheon is a stream that runs through central Seoul. Now what could possibly be so great about a stream? All of our home countries surely have streams, and surely we fished or swam in them as children! Well, this one runs right through the largest city of Korea, and the water is pristine. It’s not an uncommon sight to see people wading in the water on a summer’s day.
Last summer I was even lucky enough to snap a picture to two semi-celebrities wading through the water as they were being filmed for a local TV show.
How is that a tourist attraction? Streams and rivers are a part of nature!
Now, this stream wasn’t always here. Well, that’s actually not true either, it was always here, but not in the beautiful form which we can see today. After the Korean War, the stream was actually used by people to do laundry, to empty waste, and for drinking water, (though I wouldn’t want to drink water downstream of where people are doing their laundry and emptying their waste). There were actually some makeshift shacks built by (almost) homeless people. It was considered an eyesore in Seoul. The government likes to hide the very worst of the pictures of the stream from this era.
In the period of economic development that Korea experienced in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the stream was actually paved over to make an elevated highway. This of course made traffic flow a lot better in the city, but the poor people living on the banks of the stream had to forcibly be moved elsewhere. Often we find that in developing countries, progress is seen as more important than ethics. Some clear examples include US during the era of slavery, Great Britain during the industrial revolution, and China today. Anyway, the foul smelling eyesore was gone from the city, yet the stream went neglected. The water table was actually upset very badly, and the stream all but dried up. Environmentalists were not happy.
Sounds terrible! What happened next?
Then, President Lee Myung Bak (then Mayor of Seoul) conceived a plan to restore and revitalize the stream, as a means to beautify Seoul, and as a means for job creation. The opposition party naturally opposed his plan, citing that it would benefit only the construction sector, would cost too much to build, would lead to gentrification of the surrounding areas, and would cost a lot to maintain. These are all valid criticisms. In fact, some of them are still talked about today, as it costs the city millions of dollars per year just to keep the water flowing in the stream.
The stream has all but dried out due to the upset water table. So, water must be pumped into the stream (which used to begin in the mountains, but for all intents and purposes, now begins near Gwanghwamun (the central landmark in Seoul). The water is transported via underground pipes from the Han river, to central Seoul over a distance of about 6km. It is then emptied into the beginning of the stream, which flows through the city and empties into the Han river.
A perhaps less heard agenda was that the Korean government had invoked new green growth initiatives as Korea was attempting to become more eco-friendly. Streams are much more eco-friendly than highways.
After Cheonggyecheon’s opening in 2005, the opposition was quickly quieted, as the aesthetic beauty of the attraction quickly won over even the staunchest of political opponents. In addition to beautifying the central part of the city, air quality was greatly increased, and the temperature in the areas surrounding Cheonggyecheon are on average 3-4 degrees cooler.
The stream is the realization of traditional aesthetic and modern technology, and has become a popular attraction for both Koreans AND foreign tourists alike. It could be said that Cheonggyecheon is Lee Myung Bak’s crowning mayoral achievement.