Please Talk Quietly in Seoul’s Hanok Villages

Korea’s frontline in the war against tourism

Jessica Toale
Nov 6, 2019 · 5 min read
Bukchon Hanok Village, October 2018. Photo: Jessica Toale

It’s a cool Saturday morning in October. Amongst the throngs of people taking photos, a man stands on a corner wielding a signs that reads ‘Please talk quietly.’ A woman next to him wears a yellow bib asking the same.

Down a narrow road to the left, a large sign affixed to a high stone wall reads: “No tourists allowed thanks for your cooperation. Our village is suffering from tourists!”

These are just a few of the outward signs of the growing disquiet in Seoul’s most famous traditional village. The village has become the latest frontline in the battle against ‘overtourism’.

Traditional house in Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul. Photo: Jessica Toale

Nestled in the middle of the city near the Gyeongbukchon Palace is Seoul’s Bukchon Hanok Village. One of Korea’s traditional villages, it is a popular tourist destination for anyone visiting the city. On the weekends young people in traditional costume mingle in the streets amongst tourist from all over the world.

Visiting Bukchon is an opportunity to immerse oneself in Korea’s history and escape the hustle and bustle of the modern Myeongdong district. The village itself dates back to the 14th century and is filled with hundreds of beautifully restored traditional houses called hanok. Although today it is located fairly centrally the name Bukchon means “northern village,” which is derived from its location on the edge of the city’s traditional centre, in the present day Jongno District.

Today, many of the traditional houses are open as cultural centres, guesthouses and tea houses for visitors.

Bukchon Hanok Village, Seoul. Photo: Jessica Toale

Bukchon Hanok Village is home to around 7,500 people. Yet the village has on average 10,000 visitors per day— which in 2014 was purported to have brought the city US$1.77 billion in revenue. A large majority of these visitors come from overseas.

Tourism has had an obvious impact on the lives of the village residents. Residents complain of the noise, invasion of privacy and even issues with access to their own homes and streets. Throughout the village, residents have put up signs reminding visitors to be respectful and to keep the noise down.

As a result, the number of residents has declined by more that 16% since 2012. This figure may well be higher as it does not account for the number of people living elsewhere most of the time nor those who simply have not officially re-registered their address.

For some it is a great commercial opportunity — one man has turned his living room into a viewing deck that visitors pay 3,000 KRW to visit. But others complain that in addition to the disturbance, commercial rents have gone up dramatically. Without the commensurate increase in spending from visitors, many people are going out of business.

These two factors are leading to an increase in vacant properties, and some worry that this mass abandonment of houses will turn the area into a slum.

While tourism has the potential to bring a range of social and economic benefits to residents as well as visitors, around the world the phenomenon of ‘overtourism’ is having increasingly negative impacts on the lives of residents and the enjoyment of visitors.

Cities like Barcelona, Lisbon and Bologna have seen rents skyrocket beyond the basic affordability of locals due to the prevalence of Airbnb. In areas of natural beauty, like Thailand’s beaches and Colombia’s rainbow algae, the overabundance of visitors is having negative environmental impacts.

As a result city and national governments have begun to take action. The Peruvian government has restricted access to the Inca Trail, and Thailand famously closed Maya Beach, popularised by the 2000 drama ‘The Beach’ starring Leonardo Di Caprio. Venice is about to introduce a system of ticketing to limit the number of visitors to the city.

Global tourism is increasing every year. According to the UN World Tourism Organisation international tourism arrivals increased by 4% between January and June 2019, compared to the same period in 2018. That’s 671 million visitors. Much of this growth was lead by visitors from the Middle East and Asia.

Chinese tourists travelling in large groups are completely re-writing the rules of the game. Korea’s Tourist Guide Association Secretary Generation, Kim Gang-yeol, blames these low cost group trips from China for the overcrowding in Bukchon. Across Asia, this is an oft repeated complaint.

The city, however, does seem to be responding to resident activism and is working with experts to assess tourism practices in the neighbourhood. The government introduced a new set of restricted visiting hours to the area — from 9am to 5pm on Monday to Saturday. Bukchon is now closed to visitors on Sunday.

Residents think these measures can go further. Other traditional villages have introduced ticketing systems. The traditional village in Yongin has set opening hours and charges between 20,000–28,000 KRW for admission. The proceeds from these tickets is then recycled back to the community.

Bukchon’s city centre location may impede the implementation of such a ticketing system, however, restricting the number of visitors would allow force a shift towards quality tourism over quantity tourism.

View of Seoul Tower from Bukchon. Photo: Jessica Toale

Bukchon is a delightful area to visit, so if you do decide to visit please take care to respect the local residents:

  • Only visit during the approved hours
  • Be aware of local residents and their privacy — don’t peer into houses or take photos without permission
  • Keep noise levels down
  • Make sure to patronise some of the cafe and restaurant establishments in the village.

You can get to the Bukchon Hanok Village by taking the subway to the Anguk Station (Seoul Subway Line 3). Take exit 3 and head to your right. After about 200 meters you will see large information signs that indicates the beginning of the Bukchon Village Walking Tour.

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