SEOUL, South Korea — The nice thing about being a travel blogger is the seemingly endless array of places to write about. Since I started, I’ve made it a point to visit a new place, event, festival, or something new every single week. It’s also quite nice to retain an independent mindset (i.e. not paid by officials or a government).
Recently, I went to Yeosu, site of the upcoming World Expo, and had an enjoyable enough time seeing some of the area’s traditional sights. The town of Yeosu itself will be worth checking out – but only once the expo is over.
Allow me offer a few reasons why I won’t be going to the Yeosu Expo.
The Cost – Much like the Olympics happening in London later this year, the extreme influx of tourists to the area will be a boon to the hotels and stores that have been constructed for this event. Good luck, however, finding an affordable hotel room in the area or a cheap ticket to the Expo – at up to 40,000 won for a single ‘peak-day’ ticket, it’s more expensive than Korea’s largest amusement park. If you live in the southern part of South Korea, a day trip is feasible, of course. Coming from Seoul requires a minimum three hours on the KTX each way. That’s a 46,000 won ticket one-way – assuming you can even get on the train, as quite a few trains are already sold out.
To be clear, trillions of won (billions of US dollars) have been spent in a ‘since we’ve built it, they’d better come’ mindset. The expectations are set remarkably high – the official page says they’re expecting eight million visitors, while one Korea Times article put the figure at 10 million. While the article has to be taken with two large grains of salt, the Korea Times reported in April that “domestic ticket sales remain at about 425,000, only 14 percent of the organizer’s goal of 3 million. Overseas sales targeted 500,000 but only 37,000 tickets have been sold so far.”
I just don’t see the number of expo-goers coming from abroad to be particularly high. Sure, the locals here might go since it’s here for the same reason you hit up a convenience store once a day – because it’s convenient. Relatively speaking, this is a smaller ‘off-year’ event sandwiched between Beijing and Milan – Yeosu, South Korea is a speck compared to those two powerhouses in the grand scheme of things.
It has been reported that Incheon’s Global Fair and Festival from 2009 actually lost money (see next link), and that city is facing a financial pinch thanks to its various construction projects. To be more succinct, this is the country with expensive building projects that end up going to waste or falling apart (or in some cases, are never even used).
And then there’s the Daejeon Expo from 1993 – another massive event that welcomed the world. I went to the Expo site back in 2009 and found a ghost town of a park; during a more recent (but un-blogged) trip, the abandoned Samsung building from nearly 20 years ago remains. The area could easily hold another large sized event, but there’s 20 years' worth of maintenance and upkeep that would be badly needed.
Outlandishness – Let’s be really honest here for a second. Korea, especially in recent years, doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to running huge events. Even as an ‘off-year’ expo it’s still a huge thing – easily the biggest thing the Yeosu area has ever seen, and one of the largest things that’s been hosted by Korea. Anyone that was around for the F1 Grand Prix in Jeollanam province a couple years ago might remember some of the clusterf***s that happened there such as the use of love motels for the masses, since there wasn’t anything else available. That was ‘only’ an 88-billion-won project, and had multiple setbacks on a technical level. In fairness, they were ready for opening day, and the technicalities had been worked out – although corners were cut in the process (unsafe audience stands, anyone?). Even the BBC ran an article on the dangerous pit lane entrance – perhaps a suggestion that the design wasn’t as well thought out, despite the money spent.
The computer-designed images – The event is only three days away and virtually every aspect of the expo that’s been advertised has shown computerized versions of the grounds, as opposed to the real thing. Of course, not everything was completely picture-perfect a couple years ago when the advertising started. Surely by now there are at least a few areas that are complete? Or do people have to spend the coin to see these real grounds for themselves? I suspect there’s bound to be a huge difference between the image that encouraged them to come and the pictures they’ll take around the expo of what is actually there.
Theme – “The Living Ocean and Coast." As expo themes go historically, this sounds as politically correct as the others. One of the sub-themes further explains:
"The last few decades have witnessed severe environmental degradation caused by reckless use and excessive development of natural resources by humankind. Our economies and societies must break away from their current fossil fuel-based economies to minimize the damages to both people and the environment."
I wonder how much damage has been done to the coast as a result of an expo telling people about the damage that’s being done to the ocean.
Hotels and other considerations – WSJ’s Korea Real Time reports Yeosu has “only added a few thousand hotel rooms for the expo”, and that “tens of thousands of daily visitors are expected to commute by train and plane from Seoul.” Riiiiight. Brian in Jeollanam-do called this in early 2010 – a three-hour commute on a beyond-sold-out bullet train doesn’t sound like my idea of fun, personally. While I haven’t heard anything about anyone giving away free tickets, Stafford’s post from the 2010 Grand Prix (as well as the comments) is telling.
The general size of the monstrosity – If event organizers are to be believed, it’ll take 70 hours of exploring to see everything the expo has to offer. Assuming you start at 10 a.m. and finish at 10 p.m., take a half-hour each for lunch and dinner and another hour for bathroom or drink breaks, you’ll have a week’s worth of exploring ahead of you.
My dear readers, I’m not trying to say the event won’t be interesting. A couple of things stick out as having unusual potential – the world’s loudest pipe organ, the huge display known as the ‘big O’, and a few other intriguing facets. It’ll be the biggest venture the area has ever put on.
Between the money and corporate sponsorships, you can rightfully assume everyone will want everything to work out just peachy. The press releases and local media will testify to that effect, as you’d expect. Any lack of preparation, breakdown in logic, or infrastructure failures are likely to be glazed over in the official sources, no matter how much inconvenience they end up causing people.
If you do go, give the event a double helping of patience, and be prepared for a huge group of people that may or may not have planned ahead. Expect apologies for the most inexplicable of failures, and reserve things as far in advance as possible. This event will test the area’s infrastructure more than anything else.
The Expo will run from May 12 to August 12. For more info, visit the official site.
You can check out more of Chris's writing including the original post of this story at TravelwireAsia.com
Photos: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images AsiaPac