Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran is visiting South Korea. Her first dispatch follows.
JEJU, South Korea — Just as President Obama concluded his appearance at the G-20 meeting in South Korea, the perception of the American president in the streets was generally a good one, an appreciation that South Korea appears to be more on this president’s radar than on past U.S. presidents.
However, South Korea as a destination doesn’t appear to be on the American traveler’s radar yet.
My first day here, as part of a five-day press itinerary hosted by the Korea Tourism Organization, was spent exploring Jeju, the beautiful island off the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. I went the entire day without seeing a single non-Asian tourist.
And it wasn’t for lack of tourism infrastructure, stunning sites and a rich local culture.
Take for instance the female divers of Jeju. On the island, women (never men) go diving into the sea in search of fish and seafood. Most are elderly women, some in their 80s and 90s, and they come ashore to sell their catch. They’re tough as nails, beam with pride and exude an envious satisfaction with their life’s work.
For a country that resides in the shadows of three countries — China, Japan and North Korea — that have given South Korea trouble throughout history, South Korea is a remarkably friendly and welcoming place.
With the help of my tour guide/translator/new friend Ms. Huia Kim, I was greeted everywhere on Jeju with ear-to-ear smiles and willing explanations about everything from silkworm larvae being sold as a trail-side snack to the story behind a Buddha statue that resides in Sanbang-san, a volcanic mountain that first erupted 800,000 years ago, according to the old man officiating over the cave.
In the afternoon, we took a pleasure boat cruise around a nearby, uninhabited island. Just as the boat rounded the island, the top deck cleared out. Everyone rushed downstairs for karaoke on deck two and a comedy/musical performance by a man referred to as the "beggar" on deck one. Dressed in sexually provocative drag, the male performer had the elderly audience in tears. I was dying, too.
We ended the day watching the sunset over a green tea farm, sipping tea in ceremonial South Korean style and nibbling on green tea waffles.
As we drove back to hotel, content in our day of island road tripping, I noticed the signs along the highway that read “We love having you here” above the regular road directions.
I wanted to shout back, "I love being here, Jeju!"
For more photos and video, view our Dispatches from South Korea gallery.