South Korea builds undersea tunnel to island to boost tourism

South Korea is going to connect one of its island towns in the south, Namhae, to the mainland by constructing an undersea tunnel. While the detailed plan is not finalized yet, Namhae residents’ hope for a better life is at an all-time high as they see the project as a way to uplift their economic wellbeing. 

Namhae is an island county in South Gyeongsang Province, 314 kilometers away from Seoul. As a small county with 42,000 residents, the town center does not have many convenient facilities or services.

The tunnel, to be completed by 2029, will connect Namhae to Yeosu, a city located on the left side of the island in South Jeolla Province. The residents of Namhae will be able to reach Yeosu in 10 minutes by car through the 7.3 kilometers long tunnel, as compare to the 80 minutes drive now.

Proposal finally approved after 23 years

Kim Ji-young, Namhae County Office’s policy manager, told Maritime Fairtrade that the county’s proposal to build the tunnel to Yeosu had been rejected for the past 23 years. 

“The idea to build an undersea tunnel was first suggested when the Hanryeo Bridge was designated as the national project to promote tourism in the southern part of the country,” Kim said.

However, the Hanryeo Bridge project, with the selling point to link Namhae to Yeosu, did not proceed due to the huge cost involved – 1.6 trillion won (US$1.35 billion). The government had declined the county’s proposal to build an undersea tunnel for the same reason, saying that “the cost of construction is not worth the benefit”.

Nonetheless, the undersea tunnel project was approved this year because county officials decided to decouple the bridge proposal from the tunnel proposal.  This way, the estimated cost was cut from the initial US$1.35 billion to US$535 million.

Better quality of life for residents

The construction of the undersea tunnel to Yeosu will improve Namhae residents’ quality lives in many ways, Kim said. 

“Yeosu has many established facilities and infrastructures, such as high-speed trains and an airport, since the city prepared for the Yeosu International Expo in 2012,” Kim said. “People of Namhae can use and reach the city’s facilities faster and easier than before.” 

Considering that 35 percent of Namhae’s population is over 65 years old, the construction of the tunnel is also good for providing faster access for residents to take care of healthcare need.

“We have only one hospital in the county,” Kim said. “In cases of emergency, we can use the medical services and facilities in Yeosu, which is much more comprehensive, and this is good news for our residents.”

Namhae officials also expect more tourists with the opening of the tunnel to bring about more economic opportunities and growth.  In anticipation of more human traffic, officials are currently planning to develop urban areas, including by building more roads and repairing old ones.

“There are approximately 70 million tourists who visit the southeast of Jeolla Province and the southwest of Gyeongsang Province,” Kim said. “The tunnel will be a bridge that connects two areas and where tourists can move about easily, which creates more tourism.”

Working towards a better future

Kim said that the tunnel project is a “top priority” of the county.  The project, under the aegis of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport with the costs being accounted for by the central government’s budget, will improve the residents’ lives, and increase job and economic opportunities.

Namhae county governor Jang Chung-nam said he is going to “attract more private capital” to kick-start other complementary urban development along with the tunnel project, during an appearance at the Namhae Resident’s Day celebration on November 1.

Provincial officials have also worked towards getting more development projects off the ground for the province too.  The government has set aside 10 trillion won (US$8.4 billion) over the next five years for 116 projects, including Noeul Bridge in Jeolla Province. 

On September 10, South Jeolla Province Governor Kim Yung-rok met with 10 lawmakers at Kensington Hotel, near the National Assembly in Seoul, to discuss budgetary issues for future development plans for the province.

Image credit: Namhae County Office.  Namhae (top) and Yeosu.

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Sunny Um

Sunny Um

Sunny, our South Korea correspondent working out of Seoul, is a journalist with a passion for community journalism and an interest in economics and politics.

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