ALTHOUGH Korea is a small country with few natural resources, it managed to become a major economic player thanks to rapid industrial growth. But now that its economy has matured, the focus is more on creating jobs and added value through innovation.
Buncheon is located in Korea's inland mountain region, and the 193km line that serves this area opened in 1955. It was mainly used to transport coal and played a critical role in Korea's economic and industrial development, but the decline of heavy industry and the rapid rise in car use, robbed the line of much of its traffic.
Buncheon station, which was only used by about 10 passengers a day, suddenly became busy again when Korail launched the first of its new tourist trains in April 2013. O-train runs through the central inland region of Korea while V-train operates three times a day on a 30km section between Buncheon and Cheoram, a mining village.
The tourist trains were an instant success, with more than 400,000 people using them between April 1 and December 31, and about 1000 tourists visiting Buncheon station daily. The sudden influx of tourists prompted local farmers to open restaurants and sell local produce, while the revitalised local economy is encouraging young people, who had left in search of jobs, to return.
A third train, the S-train, was launched in September 2013 to serve the south coast known for its beautiful islands, popular tourist spots, and rich cultural heritage.
Three more tourist trains will be introduced this year; the DMZ Train will run through the de-militarised zone between North and South Korea which has a pristine ecosystem, the Gold Train will connect the west coast with rich agricultural regions, and the Blue Train will link Gyeongju, an ancient capital city, and Busan.
The initiative is about more than just operating tourist trains as Korail works with the central government, local governments, and civic groups to build a sustainable tourism infrastructure. For example, Korail has turned stations into tourism centres to reflect their unique local charm, developed trekking courses, and is allowing local artists to perform on board trains. To compensate for the lack of local public transport, tourists can hire bicycles or rent a car by the hour, while local authorities operate city tour buses.
The rail tourism initiative has helped to boost Korail's revenue. While premium conventional Saemaeul trains earn Won 41.1 ($US 0.03) per seat-km, O-train and V-train generate 1.3 and 3.5 times that respectively, and the transformation of stations into tourist centres has increased the ridership of conventional trains by 15.6% year-on-year to almost double that of comparable trains not connected with tourist trains.
Korail's says, O-train, V-train and S-train and related activities such as restaurants, car rental and tourist accommodation are expected to generate revenues of Won 260bn and create 3300 jobs by 2017. Korail also expects that once all of the tourist train projects have been completed, their effects on job creation and wealth creation will be enormous.
"Rail tourism offers a new breed of leisure activities and revitalises regional economies at the same time," says Korail's president and CEO, Ms Choi Yeon-Hye. "With the rail tourism initiative, Korail will reinvent itself as a public enterprise that contributes to an improving quality of life and drives the development of regional economies."