Jeju: Global Wonder?
It’s official: Jeju Island has, following international online and telephone polls, been voted one of the world’s ``New Seven Wonders of Nature,” by a Swiss-based organization, ``New7Wonders.”
My first reaction was not surprise ― given the voting method, I had expected Jeju to be among the winners ― but a slight unease.
Why so? Well, I know this makes me sound curmudgeonly, but it is germane to ask: Does Jeju truly live up to the designation?
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Jeju, and have visited four times. Mt. Halla is a great hike; the coastal waterfalls offer refreshing views; and the island’s rock-hedged fields and jagged coastlines have a definite wild beauty.
So it is certainly appropriate to dub Jeju one of the top attractions in South Korea. But making it one of the wonders of the world puts it in very fast company.
I have dived on the Great Barrier Reef, hiked in the Alps and flown over the Grand Canyon. These locations truly are wonders: Upon first view, your jaw drops, your breath is taken away. Yet none made the final cut; nor did the Galapagos Islands or the Dead Sea. (Mt. Everest, the River Nile and the Serengeti Plain did not even make preliminary lists.)
Meanwhile, Jeju’s lure is so fuzzy that even the island’s top promoter seems unable to coin a memorable phrase to brand it. The dull and un-differentiated, ``A good harmony of human and nature is the characteristic of Jeju Island," is the best that campaign leader Chung Un-chan could come up with following the victory.
And in online photosets of the winners, showing the thundering Iguazu Falls, the landmark Table Mountain, a slavering Komodo Dragon, etc, Jeju looks underwhelming. It may be telling that on MSNBC’s website, the Jeju photo is the only one captioned with: ``Results are provisional until independently verified.”
There is already controversy, with allegations that the competition organizer demanded money to make the final cut. What is not controversial, however, is the voting process, which was an online-, telephone- and text-voting popularity contest.
This is where things may be problematic.
As any resident of Korea knows, the natives of this peninsula are intensely nationalistic, possibly the most nationalistic people on earth. Moreover, they boast a superb online infrastructure, and enthusiastically mobilize online in nationalistic causes: Witness the coordinated ``denial of service” attacks launched against revisionist Japanese websites in recent years.
A few years ago, someone showed me how to immediately move one’s website up the rankings. The method was: Hire a group of university students. Each is assigned half a dozen computers in a PC Bang. They log on to the targeted website on multiple PCs in multiple PC Bangs, then walk along the lines, hitting refresh, again and again, all day.
I cannot say whether this kind of campaign was carried out by Jeju, and I am not accusing it ― but there are apparent precedents. For example, in 2006, 2007 and 2011, pop singer Rain was voted the ``World’s Most Influential Person” (ahead of JK Rowling, Steve Jobs, Bono and Barack Obama, among others) in TIME magazine’s annual online poll.
While the Internet has massively democratized media and information dissemination, one cost has been dilution of quality and expertise. And online global polling systems may not, in fact, represent global opinion, nor realistically assess value.
So I ask, bluntly: How many non-Koreans voted for Jeju?
Of course, if it is discovered that ― say ― only 1 percent of Jeju’s votes came from outside Korea, nobody can fault Jeju Islanders or Koreans for legitimately taking advantage of a voting method. After all, the Israelis were particularly aggressive in their (failed) campaign for the Dead Sea.
And if the result helps Jeju, then good luck, for the island deserves a break. The worst single massacre in modern Korean history took place (at the hands not of Japanese, but of fellow Koreans) on Jeju in 1948.
Postwar, the island has always lagged behind the mainland economically, and its tourism base was hammered in the early 1990s, when South Koreans started traveling internationally and discovered that Southeast Asia’s tropical islands were more competitive than Jeju in terms of both price and weather.
Finally, a promising plan several years back to make Jeju an offshore tax haven (like the Virgin Islands or the Isle of Man) was never implemented by the national government.
So I offer Jeju congratulations ― with reservations. Jeju is now on the radar of millions of potential visitors who had never heard of it. But with it now being branded globally as ``One of the New Seven Wonders of Nature,” I fear some tourists may question whether it lives up to the hype.
Meanwhile, having created the ``New Seven Wonders of the World” (2007) and the ``New Seven Wonders of Nature” (2011), New7Wonders is currently promoting a ``New Seven Wonders Cities.”
Online polls for the latter will close on Dec. 31. I think we can safely expect to see a South Korean city among the finalists.
Andrew Salmon is a Seoul-based reporter and author. His latest work, ``Scorched Earth, Black Snow,” was published in London in June. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.