YEOSU, South Korea — This butterfly-shaped peninsula sits in the deep south of the country, a humble area in the nation's least developed province, South Jeolla, historically neglected by the government. But it won't be out of the spotlight for long, as this city of 295,000 prepares for more than 8 million visitors.
From May 12 to Aug. 12, Yeosu will host Expo 2012: the Next World's Fair.
The theme of the exposition is "The Living Ocean and Coast," with the goal of demonstrating how humans can live in better harmony with the ocean, not a bad subject if climate change brings its predicted results. Yeosu residents know a thing or two about the sea: Fishing is the main industry. People here snack on dried seaweed like others chomp potato chips. Along the city's jagged, scenic coastline, elderly ladies are still seen wading through mud to look for crustaceans.
The Expo 2012 grounds are about 50 acres smack in the middle of Yeosu's waterfront. The centerpiece of the grounds is the theme pavilion, based on the Expo's ocean-and-coast mantra. It will feature experts from all over the world exhibiting the best practices in sustainable coastal development and resource management. English-language materials and interpreters will be available throughout the Expo.
The Big O (as in ocean) visually dominates the Expo. The huge O-shaped structure will have nightly laser and light shows meant to entertain audiences against an ocean backdrop.
Housing a smorgasbord of cultural displays from around the world will be the international pavilion. South Korea will have a pavilion all its own. These venues will give countries a chance to showcase their cultures and their unique takes on how to manage the challenges of ocean environments. In addition, each country in the international pavilion will have a designated day to perform traditional music on the main stage.
Beyond the Expo, Yeosu itself is an attraction. The city is split in two by a mountain, and the two sides are connected by a narrow, keyhole-shaped tunnel. With the Expo grounds on the more modern west side, people passing through the keyhole will find the calmness of Manseongri Black Sand Beach on the other side.
This being a fishing center, seafood lovers will be in their element. Raw fish is a delicacy in all of coastal South Korea, though the best bang-for-your-buck food option is the standard Korean fare, such as kimchi stew and pork loin soup. Those can be found outside the Expo's main gate at Auma Boonshik (which translates as "Simple Meals by Mom") and Gwangwang Haejangguk ("Soup for Vacation"), located side by side. Here visitors can get the stew and soup for 5,000 South Korean won, about $4.40. It's tasty, substantial and cheap.
Other Yeosu attractions worth a look include the Dolsan Bridge, Korea's largest cable-stayed bridge. It glows at night with a lighting system that cycles among 50 colors.
Odong Island is connected to the mainland by a causeway. It's a long walk (or short drive) to the island. Once there, scenic trails lead to great vantage points along the coast.
Then there's the night life. Entertainment options are limited mostly to karaoke spots (locally called noraebang, or singing rooms). For about $9 to $13 an hour, visitors can get a private room to sing and be merry. Hard and soft drinks, along with fruit and snacks, can be bought at reasonable prices.
For the less musical, the only other widespread option is called a HOF, which is a bar where patrons are obligated to buy some kind of food with their drinks. These bars have flavorless but cheap Korean beer on tap as well as a couple of foreign options at higher prices. Beyond those are cocktails and Korean soju, the national liquor. Visitors not literate in Korea's hangul alphabet can spot singing rooms by the neon-lit microphones above their entrances. For a watering hole, just look for the glowing HOF. When looking to call it a night, visitors will be pleased to find that South Korea offers cheaper accommodations than in most developed countries. Ten hotels have been officially recommended by the Expo. In order to be recommended, those hotels had to agree to price ceilings set by the Expo's organizers and be within about 19 miles of the festival grounds. Nightly rates range from $105 to $140, and reservations are encouraged. You'd need a cab ride of about $9 to get there.
If you want to be a stone's throw from the Expo grounds, right outside the main information booth is HS Tourist Hotel, which has 55 rooms priced at $246 to $335. These prices, which don't include a 10 percent value-added tax, were admittedly hiked for the Expo. But the place is clean, modern and has English-speaking staff.
For big spenders, The MVL (Most Valuable Life) Hotel, located on the Expo grounds, is the first five-star hotel built in this province. Rooms go for $176 to $1,760 a night, and many have great ocean views.
A cost-effective option is Korea's ubiquitous "love motels." They have a somewhat unsavory reputation (often rented for less than a night), but most love motels are clean and inexpensive. A night's stay typically is $35 to $45.
Nakwon Motel is one example. A few doors down from HS Tourist Hotel, it has large rooms with a TV and computer for $45, a price the owners say will stand for the Expo. It also is attached to a seafood restaurant, where operators plan to have English menus in time for the Expo.
As for when to go, middle to late summer is when the tide comes in, so to speak. All of South Korea vacations in late July and early August, so visitors would be well advised to avoid that time. Hotels will be full, and all public places will be a shoulder-to-shoulder squeeze.
If you go
To take in a day of what Yeosu 2012 has to offer, visitors will have to fork over about $30 for adults, less for seniors, teens and children. For more Expo information, visit worldexpo2012.com.
In general, there are no English menus, so visitors would benefit from learning the names of a few widely available dishes. The beach is lined with restaurants serving raw fish. Full meals of fish with rice and side dishes go for around $52 per person. For those on the tightest budgets, basic foods such as hard-boiled eggs and seaweed rolls filled with fish or meat can be bought for $1 to $2 at convenience stores.
South Korea is connected by some of the speediest and most reliable public transit in the world. You can move between any two points in South Korea in one day, because the whole country is about the size of Indiana. There are a few options for getting to Yeosu from Seoul. Yeosu's airport, normally domestic, will accept international flights during the Expo. Buses leave a few times an hour for Seoul, a ride of about five hours. The most comfortable option is probably the KTX rapid train.
For more information, visit english.visitkorea.or.kr
Lee Kwang-jin contributed to this report.