Pondering future of traditional ‘hanok’ villages

An idyllic street in Andong Hahoe Village, which was designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites last year, and since then has seen numerous visitors. The village, however, is struggling to maintain its traditional way of life with the rise in the number of visitors. / Korea Times file

Disruption from excessive tourism calls for attention to policy change

By Do Je-hae

Can preservation and successful tourism co-exist in famous traditional villages?

This was the main topic of discussion among architecture scholars and experts at a recent policy forum organized by the Architecture and Urban Research Institute (AURI).

Since being named UNESCO World Heritage Sites last year, two villages known for traditional-style Korean houses, or “hanok,” have been swamped with tourists.

Hahoe and Yandong villages, both located in the southern part of the country, are searching for ways to cope with their new status as a major tourism export while maintaining their traditional way of life.

“More people are taking an interest in hanok villages and the benefits of living in traditional houses,” said Sohn Sae-gwan, president of AURI at a forum held Tuesday at Seoul Museum of History in central Seoul. According to the latest government survey, around 40 percent of the respondents said that they were interested in living in hanok.

October is the season of school field trips and tour buses bring in huge tourist crowds, hampering the lives of residents.

“But there have not been sufficient policy measures to deal with the influx of tourists to traditional hanok villages,” Sohn said.

For such villages, tourism is not an option since they need new growth engines besides agriculture. Many residents are aged or leaving to find livelihoods elsewhere.

“The dilemma is that besides being tourist sites, these places are actually inhabited by people who wish to continue their traditional way of life and preserve their environment,” said professor Kim Bong-yeol of Korean National University of the Arts.

The two folk villages where noble clans of the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910) lived were added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in recognition of their Confucian cultural characteristics.

One of the most well-known clan villages in Korea, the Andong Hahoe Village has been inhabited by members of the Ryu clan of Pungsan for hundreds of years. Nestled along the bends of the Nakdong River, the village is currently home to 120 families and features many cultural assets, including important houses and other national treasures. Yangdong is a clan village that has been home to the Gyeongju Son family for more than five centuries.

The World Heritage Committee, in inscribing them on the list, described the villages as reflecting “the distinctive aristocratic Confucian culture” of the times. “The landscapes of mountains, trees and water around the village, framed in views from pavilions and retreats, were celebrated for their beauty by 17th and 18th century poets,” it said.

There are about 170 such villages that receive government funds for preservation across the country.

“I spoke with South Jeolla Governor Park June-young on the phone after a column I contributed to the Gwangju Ilbo and he urged the central government to pay more policy attention to the preservation of hanok villages,” Yoo Byung-kwon, a director-general at the Ministry of Land, Transport and Maritime Affairs said.

“While there has been no visible outcome yet, the government has initiated research projects on hanok. We are also planning to nurture more experts in the area.” Yoo added.

AURI was established by the government last year to conduct a more systematic research on the preservation and future of hanok.

The institute will hold a follow-up forum on Nov. 24, centering on the industrial aspect of hanok.

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