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Tourism boom threatened by celebrity divorce

June 29,2019
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A copper statue of characters played by Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki for the 2016 TV series “Descendants of the Sun” in Taebaek, Gangwon. [YONHAP]
Taebaek, Gangwon, was the main location for the filming of “Descendants of the Sun,” a 2016 mega-hit TV series. In the show, the main characters fall in love at a military base. The actors playing the characters fell in love as well. Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki married the following year.

Taebaek enjoyed a boom in tourism as a result. Fans of the show have flocked to the site of the drama. But the prospects for the town are now in doubt as the real-life couple has filed for divorce. At stake are the film set, a theme park and a number of new developments.

The city has already spent a fortune to restore the filming location and organize spots to take photos that directly tie in to the TV series. The filming set was originally torn down when the shooting finished in November 2015. But the city rebuilt it.

The construction costs 270 million won ($233,700) and was finished in August 2016. The site is bedecked with photos of Song Hye-kyo and Song Joong-ki.

There were twists and turns during the process. The regional government originally planned a budget of 2 billion won for the filming site, which it hoped would come from the central government. But the local government was unable to receive this support on grounds that rebuilding the torn-down film set went against the public interests.

So Taebaek used its own money to rebuild the film set. Motivated by a big influx of tourists, in 2017 the city additionally created a park with the Urk Catholic church - which appears in the series - and commissioned a statue of the couple played by the two Songs, as well as a massive sculpture of Song Joong-ki’s military boots. After it was made public that the couple would marry, Taebaek citizens requested they hold a wedding ceremony at that park.

The annual Taebaek Couple Festival started in 2017 in commemoration of the opening of the park. That year in May, the festival was visited by 12,000 tourists over three days.

According to Taebaek on Thursday, the Taebaek Couple Festival was to be held for the third time this year for two days - from July 27 to 28 - but with the recent news of the planned divorced, the town had to rethink the festival.

On Friday at 5 p.m., a meeting was held at a welfare center in Hwangyeong-dong, and it decided to cancel the festival.

“The festival committee has decided not to hold the 2019 couple festival. Next year, we will do our best to develop a new festival,” according to a statement from the committee.

Last year, the festival’s schedule was changed to July from May, and a variety of events were prepared. Visitors could ride a rollercoaster, bike through virtual reality and wear outfits worn by the couple. Tourists could fly a lantern and sing a song at a competition.

But now, the heydays are in danger of coming to an end.

According to reports, Taebaek is having a hard time figuring out what to do with the tourism content related to “Descendants of the Sun.” This includes promotional leaflets and huge photos at the filming site.

The local government is expressing concern whether the divorce will have an impact on the new tourism investment. The local government is building an “aurora park” and a “slow food” restaurant around the shooting location and the park. The total investment is estimated at 27 billion won.

“The business being developed is completely irrelevant to the series, ‘Descendants of the Sun,’” said an official from Taebaek. “It just seems like the location is related to the drama because the team came to film.”

“We have to wait further to see whether the recent incident will bring actual impact,” it said.

BY PARK JIN-HO [kim.heyu@joongang.co.kr]