Bukchon Hanok Village: South Korea to set visitor curfew for historic district to crackdown on tourists

William Tang/Design Pics Editorial/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

A street in Seoul’s historic Bukchon village.

Seoul, South Korea

As the issue of overtourism sweeps cities and countries around the world, authorities in South Korea have announced stricter controls and measures to protect a historic traditional village district in downtown Seoul from throngs of tourists, who have flooded its streets and caused friction with local residents over the years.

Known for its picturesque and well-preserved traditional Korean houses called “hanok,” Bukchon Hanok Village is one of Seoul’s most popular tourist hot spots – attracting thousands of visitors every day.

But tourists greatly outnumber residents and complaints about noise, littering and privacy issues in the vicinity have escalated over the years.

Located in the Jongno district in downtown Seoul, Bukchon sits near other cultural landmarks like the Jongmyo royal ancestral shrine and the grand Gyeongbokgung and Changdeokgung palaces.

In a bid to ease tensions and control crowds, district officials will start to restrict tourist access to the popular village from as early as October this year.

It will be designated the country’s first-ever “special management area” under South Korea’s Tourism Promotion Act.

Rhee Soo-young/CNN

Signs ask visitors to keep their voices down in the residential neighborhood.

Strict curfews for non-residents will be reinforced daily between 5 p.m. to 10 a.m. Chartered buses carrying tourists will be restricted in several sections. The aim is to reduce traffic and make Bukchon “foot-centered,” officials said.

Three color-coded zones – red, orange and yellow – will also be designated to allow local authorities to control and monitor crowds in the most densely populated areas. Fines will also be imposed on violators, officials said.

Following public complaints, signs in four languages warning tourists about noise levels were installed in 2018.

The area once served as residential quarters for high-ranking authorities and nobility during the era of the Joseon kings, who ruled Korea from the 1300s until 1910. Today, the area is home to around 6,000 residents as well as businesses like inns, craft stores and cafes – with several prominent photo spots.

However, some of those living and working in the area have dismissed the new measures as being “empty talk.”

Cafe owner Lee Youn-hee told CNN that tourists usually leave after sunset anyway, as they’re mostly there to take photos.

“In the winter, visitors are gone by 5 p.m. and during summer maybe by 6 p.m. because the days are longer,” Lee said. “This won’t make a big difference.”

But Seoul isn’t alone. Many global cities are struggling to find a balance between much-needed tourism revenue and maintaining their appeal to residents.

Tourists visiting Barcelona this week were sprayed with water by protesters marching through popular areas to demonstrate against mass tourism in the city. Italy’s lagoon city of Venice introduced a trial fee in April to limit the number of day trippers.

Overtourism has long been a problem in Japan, with the situation deteriorating rapidly since the country reopened post-pandemic. The slopes of Mount Fuji have seen increasing human traffic jams, foothills littered with garbage as well as bad tourist behavior.

Out-of-control tourists have been especially problematic in Kyoto, one of Japan’s most popular tourist cities, famed for its iconic Gion geisha district. Reports of “geisha paparazzi” fueled public anger and have prompted city officials to take action.

Back in Seoul, about 6.6 million domestic and overseas tourists are believed to have visited Bukchon in 2023, according to government data.

“I think it’s important that tourists be respectful to those living here,” Sindere Schoultz, a tourist from Sweden, told CNN. “We want to come here and have a good time but we don’t want to step on somebody’s toes and be disrespectful.”

Another Swedish tourist, Emma Hägg, said she understood the reasons behind the ban. “I don’t mind it,” she said. “I completely understand why and it’s good that they still want us.”

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