Love Island returns for a sixth series tonight. Previously a summer affair, this dreadful programme will now pervade our lives twice a year. Heaven help us. Its reappearance does, however, offer a chance to shine a light on what could reasonably consider itself the original Love Island: Jeju.
This South Korean isle might well be the most popular holiday destination you’ve never heard of. Around 15 million people visit it each year – more than Brazil and Egypt combined – but the vast majority are domestic tourists or Chinese. Indeed, Jeju-Seoul is – by some distance – the world’s busiest air route, with 14.1m passengers flying between the two airports in 2018.
So what’s the appeal?
Unesco-listed, and billed as South Korea’s answer to Hawaii, Jeju is pure Instagram gold, and home to dramatic volcanic landscapes, underground caves, hiking trails and scenic beaches.
Halla Mountain, at 1,940m above sea level, is South Korea’s highest, while the cone of Seongsan Ilchulbong, or “Sunrise Peak”, is particularly spectacular. It is also known for its countless orange trees and “mermaids” – brave female free-divers who still hunt for seafood.
Such is its beauty, in 2011 Jeju was named among the “New7Wonders of Nature”, though there were accusations that its selection was down not just to good looks, but also the readiness of tourism and marketing organisations to stump up cash – including taxpayers’ money – to support its campaign.
There are also casinos, which help lure travellers from China, and, thanks to the island’s self-governing status, anyone can visit without a visa.
Now for the love connection. Bizarrely, there’s also a sex-themed park, Jeju Love Land, which features phallus statues, interactive exhibits on the “masturbation cycle”, and other sculptures of humans in flagrante.
Love Land is said to owe its existence to Jeju’s long standing popularity as a honeymoon destination. Young newlyweds would arrive knowing next to nothing about the birds and the bees so some hotel employees offered to share their expertise. The island soon became an unofficial centre for sex education, making the theme park entirely logical (this is a family newspaper – for more pictures, you will need Google).
But Jeju also has a dark side. In 1948 and 1949, the South Korean government brutally put down an attempted uprising on the island. Villagers, including women and children, were massacred, and as recently as 2008 mass graves were still being uncovered. Some 30,000 people died as a result of the uprising, with a further 40,000 fleeing to Japan, and the atrocities are remembered at the 4.3 Peace Park memorial.
Jeju’s burgeoning popularity has raised fears about “overtourism” in recent years. The island is only 45 miles across, with a population of 700,000 – but South Korea wants it to attract 45 million annual tourists by 2035. It is planning to construct a new international airport to help meet that target, but Jeju residents are understandably concerned.
Fancy a trip? You can see Jeju on Cunard’s nine-night Southern Japan cruise, departing from Yokohama (Tokyo) on April 11, 2020 (cunard.co.uk).