With the pandemic almost over, many countries have opened their borders to international travelers. Among those who endured one of the longest lockdowns in the world, Filipinos are all the more excited to travel again. And be it before the pandemic or the nearing end of it, one of the countries high on the list for Filipinos to visit remains to be South Korea.

In fact, based on pre-pandemic statistics, South Korea enjoyed half a million yearly travelers from the Philippines. The highly-developed East Asian nation became a popular destination because of the Hallyu wave or Korean Wave, which succeeded in breaking barriers for South Korean popular culture – including music, TV shows, movies, beauty and even food – around the world.

Among the usual spots many tourists go to are Seoul and Jeju Island. While these are the familiar places visitors go to enjoy history, ultra-modern design and technology, nightlife, shopping, and nature-bound attractions, there remain several hidden cities and provinces yet to be discovered by international travelers. In other words, these are virgin destinations that have not been comprised by human activity.

The Sunday Times Magazine was among the Philippine press invited by the Korea Tourism Organization (KTO) Manila Office to visit these lesser-known tourism hubs, including Busan and Jeolla Province, particularly Gwangju, Jeollabuk-do and Jeollanam-do, in the hopes that Filipinos travelers will consider what these places offer, besides the usual South Korean destinations.

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The trip was made possible through partnerships with Busan Tourism Organization, Jeolla Nam-do Tourism Organization, Jeolla Buk-do Culture and Tourism Organization, Jeonbuk Culture and Tourism Foundation, Gwangju Tourism Organization, Korea Tourism Organization Gwangju Jeonnam Office and Korea Tourism Organization Busan Ulsan Office.

Jeolla Province

The Jeolla Province was one of the historical Eight Provinces of Korea during the Kingdom of Joseon in today's Southwestern Korea. It is one of the must-visit destinations here where travelers can savor both traditional and modern activities side by side. There certainly is no shortage of things to see and do in this part of Korea.

Jeollabuk-do. A popular site for stops is the Awon Museum and Gallery in Wanju. One of the reasons why it became such a hit is because K-pop supergroup BTS had a video and photo shoot on the very location for the "BTS 2019 Summer Package in Korea." But apart from such exhilarating activities, the area is also a perfect getaway for those looking for peace and quiet--thanks to the surrounding nature and backdrop of the Jongnamsan Mountain. Awon apparently is also a hotel where guests can stay at the 250-year-old hanok (traditional Korean house).

Another popular destination for both local and international travelers is the Jeonju Hanok Village in Jeonju, which has around 800 traditional Korean hanok houses. It is home to valuable cultural heritage like the Gyeonggijeon Shrine, Jeonjuhyanggyo Local Confucian School, Omokdae Historical Site and the Jeondong Cathedral. Here, it is customary to see tourists walking around wearing elegant hanbok (traditional costumes) on the streets. As a famous attraction, traditional food, tea shops, cafes and workshops thrive here.

Gwangju. Among the destinations visitors need to see in the sixth-largest metropolis of South Korea is Wolbongseowon Confucian Academy, built way back in 1578. Here, guests can still enjoy the mood of Korea's olden days by just walking through the academy grounds. Entering the main gate, visitors will be greeted by the main lecture hall of Bingwoldang, as well as Chilsongjoeng, Aeildang Hall, and other charmingly antique buildings, including Jonseongjae or dormitories for the scholars. Within the area is a place where guests can experience wearing the Confucian Scholars' robe, tea ceremony, and traditional music.

One of the main places Gwangju is also proud of is their Asia Culture Center or ACC. It is home to activities such as cultural exchange in Asia and content creation, production, exhibition, performance and distribution. With four stories above ground and four stories underground, it consists of venues like ACC Archive and Research, ACC Creation, ACC Theater, ACC Children and ACC Cultural Exchange.

Meanwhile, many stories can be discovered at a small village called Yangnim Penguin Village. Penguins do not live here, but visitors will find alleys and traditional hank houses decorated with penguin-inspired murals and outdoor exhibitions. This was done to promote art and tourism, helping the elderly locals to make a living.

Just a few steps away from Penguin Village is Lee Lee Nam Studio, an art gallery and museum run by the world-renowned contemporary media artist of the same name. The studio consists of three areas – the writer's studio, the Media Art Museum (MAM), and the media café.

Jeollanam-do. Meanwhile, Damyang's Metasequoia-line Land is one of Korea's most beautiful paths, perfect for taking pictures all season long. The beautiful tunnels created by the giant trees lining the path are a unique sight. The track is historically significant, being the first tree-lined path developed using farmed saplings.

Equally impressive is Juknokwon Bamboo Garden. This bamboo forest, at approximately 310,000 square meters, has eight trails with different themes. As visitors walk along the road, listening to the crackling sounds of bamboo leaves, visitors will find themselves in the middle of the thick bamboo forest. The cooling wind gives anyone a refreshing feeling.

One of the most scenic places in South Korea is Boseong Green Tea Fields. It is a popular tourist attraction year-round, thanks to the vast rows of tea trees that line the hillside like a deep green carpet. Despite being located on a small peak at just 350 meters above sea level, the observation deck at the summit offers views of the sea on clear days. The entrance to the tea plantation is also lined with tall cedar trees, adding a unique aspect to this plantation. Because of its scenery, it has been featured as a filming site in dramas.

Blessed with a lush natural environment, Suncheonman National Garden Garden, on the other hand, was established on a plot of 1.12 million square-kilometer to help protect Suncheonman Bay. The garden is home to over 790,000 trees in 505 species and 3.15 million flowers in 113 species. Next year, Suncheonman will be holding their International Garden Expo slated on April 22 to October 22, 2023.

On the other side is the Suncheonman Wetland. Its fields are thickly covered with reeds taller than a full-grown man, said to be the biggest colony of reeds in Korea. It is also a natural habitat for birds of over 140 species, including migratory and endangered bird species.

A few kilometers away is the Suncheon Drama Set, which is well-known as a shooting location for famous KTV dramas and movies. The site boasts optimal filming conditions with its vast area of 40,000 square meters. While walking around the site, visitors can imagine the busy atmosphere of the filming location with staff and actors.

Another amazing city, meanwhile, in Jeollanam-do is Yeosu. It has many popular attractions, including the Yeosu Art Land, which houses the largest AR 3D Trick Art Museum in South Korea and various Insta-worthy amusement facilities.

Equally interesting is the Arte Museum – the country's largest immersive media art exhibition. The great space presents 10 new, colorful media art exhibitions through a mixture of light and sound. The media artworks, created around the theme of "Eternal Nature," provide a perfectly immersive experience with impactful visuals, sensuous sounds, and elegant fragrance.

In Yeosu, tourists can also experience the Maritime Cable Car, which allows them to see the beautiful scenery of the sea and the Geobukseon Bridge, otherwise offered only through aerial photographs.

Busan

Busan became even more popular because of the 2016 zombie film "Train to Busan." But the second largest city in South Korea can surprise every visitor minus a storyline for its picturesque beaches, stunning mountainside scenery and historical temples, among many others. In fact, as the economic, cultural and educational center of southeastern South Korea, they are aiming to host the 2030 World Expo here (read side bar in C3).

There are hundreds of places and things to do in this bustling port city, but some of the things that can be experienced here are going to Busan Cooking Class with CEO and Chef Heeyoung Jang. At Busan Cooking Class, guests will learn about Busan's food culture and make a full Korean meal. Everyone's creation can be enjoyed accompanied by local rice wine and a local tea ceremony at the end.

Meanwhile, amazing views of the city and the ocean can be expected at the highest view of Busan X the Sky. The observation deck takes visitors up to the 98th to 100th floors of the tower. It also features a transparent glass walking bridged called "Shocking Bridge" and has X the Photo zone, X the Gift souvenir store, and X the Lounge for food and drinks.

On the other hand, aboard the Heaundae Blueline Park Beach Train is also a great way to enjoy the panoramic views of the ocean through its expansive windows. It runs at a comfortable 15-kilometer per hour and stops at six stations.

Finally, Busan also offers Yacht tours during the day, sunset or night. It is the most convenient and luxurious way to see what the wonderful city has to offer at an affordable price.

Definitely, Filipinos tourists can enjoy more of South Korea with these mesmerizing locations and sites.