It seems that South Korea has always been a victim of geopolitics. The country clocked an average of 6.6 per cent annual growth in per capita GNP in 1960s through to 1985, but its economic performance was often overshadowed by a bigger miracle across the strait: Japan. Today, the country is stronger than ever, having risen to become Asia’s fourth largest economy with a 6.1 per cent economic growth predicted by International Monetary Fund this year. But the world’s focus has gone to China, its western neighbour.
One thing for sure, though, South Korea is an economic force to reckon. For the most part, Seoul seems to be getting much of the limelight as the capital and a northeast Asian financial hub. Busan, as the second largest city and the largest port of the country, not to mention the host of many notable events such as the Pusan International Film Festival, seems to have constantly gone under the radar of foreign tourists.
A total of 1,029,518 tourists from overseas visited Busan in the first half of this year, a nominal 0.4 per cent increase from the first half of 2009. The fact is the city has a lot to offer for both leisure and business travelers, and the city is constantly on the move to upgrade itself.
A natural beauty
When arriving in Busan, the first thing that will grab you is the geography. From the Busan Gimhae Airport to downtown, your ride will pass through a lot of tunnels and hillsides dotted with residences. But where you will end up visiting most in this coastal city is the waterfront, as well as some of the seven beaches that are the pride and joy of the 3.6 million people living here.
“Busan is very comfortable, it’s a city but it’s very calm and not crowded. I feel very relaxed. People are very kind,” says Myunghwa Jin, district manager for Starbucks in Busan who was originally from Seoul. “While Seoul is built along the Han River, Busan has many beaches and also a harbour.”
On the hilly inland, Busan’s dense urban areas, called “gu”, are situated in narrow valleys between the Nakdong River and Suyeong River, with districts separated by mountains. The rugged terrain earned this city the name of Geochilsan-gun (rough mountains) when it was absorbed by Shilla.
At the famous Jagalchi Fish Market, one may visit from dawn to throughout the morning to feel the action of the seafood stalls. Here, you can also see fishing boats back from their days’ work bobbing on the waters between Busan’s mainland and Yeongdo-gu, an island of great mountains and coastal walks, New Stone Age relics and many legends.
The many mountains, naturally, also mean good hiking trails. Probably the most visited route is from the Nammun (south gate) of Geumjeong Fortress, reachable by cable car from Oncheongjang, through the Bukmun (north gate) and down to the great Beomeosa Temple. It’s a few hours hike but the scenery will make it worthwhile.
Living the good life
It may not come on top of foreign tourists’ list of places to go, but domestically, Busan at the southern coast is a favourite vacation city because of its many beaches, each of which has a different personality.
Among them, Gwangalli Beach actually comes alive mostly at night, with its many cafes, bars, and restaurants lining the waterfront road and looking out to the Grand Gwangan Bridge – a spectacular view when it’s lit up in the dark night. Millak Raw Fish Center, among the cluster of buildings at the northern end of the beach, features many restaurants serving fresh, and even live, seafood in abundance.
But as an overseas tourist you are more likely to stay near the Haeundae Beach, a newer and flashier part of town that feels decidedly western. Large hotels here include The Westin Chosun Busan (starwoodhotels.com), Novotel Busan (novotelbusan.com) and Lotte Hotel Busan (lottehotelbusan.com). The stretch between the Busan subway station of Haeundae to the waterfront is lined with bars and restaurants catering to international taste, and the beach is painstakingly maintained. It is also where one of the city’s most famous attractions, Busan Aquarium (busanaquarium.com) is located, featuring a mind-boggling showcase of marine lives.
But for the “real” Busan, you need to go eastbound. Rather sterile business districts as such Seomyeon are likely where you’d find yourself during the day if you’re on business trip here. Otherwise, Nampodong, the city’s long-standing commercial artery, is where you’d find the most action. It is also where the PIFF Square is located. There are great eats here if you know where to look, otherwise the Jagalchi Seafood Market is only nearby, offering a whole grilled fish, rice and kimchi for as little as US$10.
Many guidebooks would tell you to go to Busan Tower in Yongdusan Park, which, at 120 metres high and with its location on a 69-metre high hilltop, is a popular place for a bird’s eye view of the city. But so many places in Busan offer great views, so it is probably not a great loss to give this a miss and save the entry fee.
Busan also boasts many hot-spring spas, with multi-level Heosimcheong Spa (+82 51 550 2100) of Nongshim Hotel in Dongnae-gu, which claims to be the largest in Asia, being one of the most well known. Admission is about W7, 900 (US$8.50) per person.
Due to the proximity, Busan’s ties with Japan remain strong throughout history, and the two sides are connected by daily ferry service. Hitakatsu, on the Japanese island of Tsushima, is only an hour away from the city’s International Ferry Terminal and Fukuoka is less than three hours travel time by sea. Shimonoseki, Izuhara and Osaka are also reachable by ferry from Busan. “We can go there for shopping, and there are also a lot of Japanese tourists in Busan,” Jin says.
Ferry tickets may take up to three months to book. For availability and schedules, check out busanferry.com
Busan may seem more relaxed, but when it comes to business it really means it. After all, it was designated a trading port with Japan in the 15th century and Korea’s first international port back in 1876.
South Korea’s largest seaport and the world’s fifth, Busan has three container ports including Jaseungdae, Shinsundae and Gamman and can handle up to 13.2 million TEUs (twenty-foot equivalent units) shipping containers per year.
“[Busan] is the largest port city in Korea, playing an important role as the central city of cargo business and a gateway to China, Japan, the US and Europe. It is also a digital intelligence-based city and has excellent human resources,” Kevin Jung, Busan Lotte Hotel’s assistant manager of marketing and PR, says.
In June, Busan New Port, having opened its entire north terminal last year, completed four berths in its south container terminal. According the Busan Trade Office in Los Angeles, the goal of the facility is to become “a hub port for northeast Asia”. With the opening of the new berths, the port can handle 5.88 million TEUs a year.
Busan has also in the last decade become a major host of international events. In 2002, it hosted the Asian Games as well as some of the World Cup matches. And in 2005, it was the location of Apec Summit. In the same year, it also announced its bid for 2020 Summer Olympics Games.
In the western part of town is Centum City, home to Busan’s premier exhibition and conference facility Bexco (bexco.co.kr) as well as “the world’s largest department store”, the Shinsegae (centumcity.shinsegae.com). Frankly, it is more like a mall than a department store as most people would understand it. But as an entertainment venue, it is quite amazing, with a range of brand names – both local and international – an ice-skating rink, spa, creative cinema space and even art galleries.
Centum City is still expanding, and another of its ambitions is the 110-floor Lotte Super Tower, slated to become the world’s third tallest building when completed. A 3-D Film Research Center is also planned here to make Busan, nearby Ulsan and the southeast region a hub for the technology.
Busan’s infrastructure also continues to improve.
The world’s largest seabed tunnel has also recently been completed near Busan. It is part of the Geoga Bridge project that connects the city with the island of Geoje, home to Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering and Samsung Heavy Industries. At 2.5-mile-long, the tunnel lies 52 yards below the water’s surface – a record in its own right. When the project opens, said to be in December, travel time between Busan and Geoje will be cut from 130 to 50 minutes.
The South Korean government has reportedly allocated 1.9 trillion won (US$1.6 billion), for the project with the hope to stimulate the economy in the region.
It is also putting in efforts to attract foreign investments.
The Busan Trade Office reports that as of the end of May, US$142,089,000 has been poured into the city through 34 foreign investment deals this year, from companies in Hungary, France, Singapore and the US. It marks a 48.4 per cent year-on-year increase, but still far behind the city’s goal of US$500 million for the entire year.
Officials have headed to China and Japan this year to promote Busan and the plan for a Busan-Jinhae Free Economic Zone Authority similar to one in Incheon. More promotional initiatives are in place to aim at global companies in Europe and North America.
It is only a matter of time before Busan gets its rightful place on the global travel map.