THE Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang officially opened to much fanfare on Feb 9, 2018. While the event is not as big as the Summer Olympics, South Korea has a lot riding on the games.
In 2010 and 2014, Pyeongchang launched bids to host the Winter Olympic Games. Sadly, despite having the most votes in the first round of voting, Pyeongchang lost in the final round by three and four votes respectively.
The 2010 Winter Olympics ultimately went to Vancouver and the 2014 Winter Olympics to Sochi. Not one to give up, the organising committee soldiered on year after year in hopes of being elected.
Pyeongchang finally won its bid for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in the first round of voting, receiving 63 of the 95 votes cast, giving them the required majority to be elected as host city (the others contenders being Munich in Germany and Annecy in France).
The announcement was made on July 6, 2011, by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), after the 123rd IOC Session in South Africa, undoubtedly a historic moment for South Korea.
Let’s talk numbers
It is estimated that South Korea spent nearly US$13 billion on building several new arenas, event spaces and lodging structures for the Games. South Korea also secured sponsorship from large multinational companies such as Alibaba, Samsung, Coca-Cola, Intel, Visa, Panasonic, and Omega.
The Games will be centered around two main venues: the mountain resort of Alpensia for the outdoor sports (Nordic and alpine skiing, bobsled) and the coastal city of Gangneung for the indoor sports (figure skating, hockey, curling). On top of that, there are two mountain standalone venues and 13 competition venues, six of which are new.
The opening and closing ceremonies were foreseen to take place in the 10-year-old Alpensia Ski Jumping Stadium. However, due to some changes in the venue plan and organisational issues, the ceremonies were moved. They needed a new stadium.
Located in the Pyeongchang mountain cluster, the 35,000-seat pentagonal-shaped Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium was built on an 80,000 sq metre site and the final major structure built for the Games. And it’s temporary.
The venue will be used for the opening and closing ceremonies for the Winter Olympics and the Paralympics, and then it will be demolished. It cost US$109 million to build.
That is a lot of money. Other attractions adjacent to the stadium will remain as heritage facilities.
Not much is certain about the country’s post-Games plans for the host of other expensive venues. So when the event wraps and the lights go out, what’s in it for South Korea?
A costly gamble
While it’s a popular winter destination for South Koreans, prior to the Games, Pyeongchang was still a relatively unknown, rural ski area. By hosting the Winter Olympic Games, it is hoped that they can turn it into a winter games destination and attract more international visitors.
Also, the country took a hit last year after angering China by deploying a US missile defense system, that manifested into low inbound tourism numbers from China.
For the economy, the biggest benefit would be a return of tourists from China, which will host the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. Perhaps South Korea is trying to emulate the success of the Japanese rural city, Sapporo.
Sapporo got its claim to fame when it hosted the 1972 Olympics, the first city in Asia to host the Winter Games. It raised its international profile, resulted in a tourism boom and turned it into a winter sports destination.
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Sapporo has since hosted many international competitions, including two Asian Winter Games (1986 and 1990), the 1991 Winter Universiade and the Nordic World Ski Championships in 2007. Currently, the city holds the annual Sapporo Snow Festival which attracts millions of people from all over the world.
To accommodate to-be tourists, Pyeongchang invested new arenas, new highways, and a new KTX high-speed bullet train rail link that connects Incheon International Airport and Seoul to Pyeongchang.
It takes about three hours’ worth of travel time by car from Incheon International Airport to Gangwon province. But the new train effectively cuts the travel time by more than half. New highways (the 2nd Yeongdong highway between Gwangju in Gyeonggi Province and Wonju and the new highway between East Hongcheon and Yangyang) will also help to distribute the traffic volume between Seoul and Gangwon.
A Hyundai Research Institute study has suggested that Pyeongchang could potentially enjoy US$40 billion in tourism spending for the next decade thanks to the Games, or one million more foreign visitors every year for the next 10 years.
That is, provided that Pyeongchang keeps the momentum going long after the event. According to Forbes, Pyeongchang has to drive tourism and visitors to its 40,000-person town to ensure that the facilities continue to be used.
Otherwise, Gangwon Province, where Pyeongchang is located, will be burdened with a yearly US$8.5 million debt to pay off the Olympics for an unspecified amount of time.
The Olympics buzz
Not only will the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics feature 102 events in 15 sports disciplines, with four new games, and 2,952 athletes from 92 National Olympic Committees, it also includes the much talked about debut of Ecuador, Eritrea, Kosovo, Malaysia, Nigeria and Singapore.
The South Korean government also rolled out heavy advertising and promotional activities: appointing highly influential individuals to act as honorary ambassadors such as renowned figure skater Yuna Kim, professional baseball players Hyun Jin Ryu and Shin Soo Choo, Hallyu stars such as actors Lee Min Ho, Kim Woo Bin, Lee Dong Wook, and big K-Pop names AOA, Girls’ Day and BIGBANG’s Taeyang.
The publicity schedule also included tours and concerts that were held in months leading up to the Games. That is enough to generate buzz and get just about anything Games-related to appear on top searches.
The aforementioned missile crisis involving South Korea and the ongoing tensions between the North and the South also contributed to the publicity that the Games was already getting as it garnered interest and kept South Korea in conversations. The plot thickened when in January, after their first high-level talks in over two years, North Korea agreed to participate in the Games.
This saw North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, attending the opening ceremony – a historical appearance as she is the first member of the North Korea’s ruling bloodline to cross the peninsula since the Korean War.
The countries’ delegations also proudly marched together during the opening ceremony under one unified flag, a powerful message of peace and undoubtedly an emotional moment for all who were watching.
However, experts have said that it is likely that the momentum will fade after the Games.
Nonetheless, it would be interesting to see what this will do for South Korea. And only time will tell.
Let the Games begin.
This article originally appeared on our sister website Travel Wire Asia.