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|An itsy-bitsy definition of a Korean 'amenity' |
By Norimitsu Onishi The New York Times
WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 24, 2005
BYEONSAN BIKINI BEACH, South Korea It seemed like a good idea, a surefire way to catapult this beach into the ranks of Bali and Waikiki: a 10 percent discount for anyone in a bikini.
It all started back in 2003 when local officials here, racking their brains over how to lure visitors to this stretch on South Korea's rural west coast, decided that a name change was due.
Byeonsan Beach was reborn, with "Bikini" in its name.
While the change might not convince modest locals of the merits of bikinis or Speedos overnight, the reasoning went, it could attract less inhibited visitors from Seoul. But after droves of bikini-wearers failed to turn up last year, the locals had to come up with something else.
"Since it's called Bikini Beach, we thought we should give visitors an extra incentive," said Gang Heung Ueon, a spokesman for Byeonsan County, sitting at a beachside fish restaurant that specializes in clam porridge and raw cod.
A poster of a bikini-clad woman in the restaurant explained the new incentive, in effect since July 7: "Show off your bikini! Get a 10 percent discount on top!"
Of the 45 restaurants, motels and other businesses in the area, 38 were participating. But so far, actual bikinis have proven elusive, Gang said. Only 10 percent of beachgoers have opted for skimpiness, he said - a figure that, on later inspection, seemed a stretch.
Still, on a recent Saturday, expectations were high. The "Miss Byeonsan Bikini Contest" - called the "Miss Byeonsan Beauty Contest" until last year - was taking place. The contestants themselves would at least wear bikinis, or so went the promise.
"This beach might be compared one day to Bali or to other famous beaches in Southeast Asia," Gang said.
"It's a long-term goal," he added.
Byeonsan, like other local governments in the country, had little need to conceive of creative ideas until a decade ago. The central government had simply appointed administrators from Seoul to run local governments until 1995, providing little incentive for local officials to try to stand out.
But now "a lot of creative ideas are coming out of the regions from ambitious politicians who want to move on to higher office," said Ahn Young Hoon, a scholar at the Korea Research Institute for Local Administration.
Beset by a scarcity of industries and depopulation, rural areas are trying to create a distinct image - a "C.I.," or "company identity," in the jargon popular among local government officials - to attract tourists and investors.
The word "amenity," often used in English but unfathomable to most people in South Korea, has become the guiding principle for several local governments.
"You look behind the times if you don't use it at least three times in a presentation,"
Park Hyung Jae, a spokesman for the Namhae County government on the peninsula's southeastern shore, said of the "amenity" catchphrase.
After - or perhaps despite - looking up the word in a dictionary, Park concluded that it meant "regional, agricultural, environmentally-friendly, pollution-free, primitive, natural, pure."
The county now boasts of its "green amenity."
"It's now familiar because nowadays we use it as often as we eat kimchi," Park said, mentioning Korea's national dish.
In Seocheon County, directly north of here, "Amenity Seocheon" is the motto used to advertise the region's unspoiled wilderness. The county also proposed a dog-eating festival for lovers of the meat, which is considered a delicacy in Korea.
"But some pet-lovers opposed the idea and we dropped it," said Lee Jin Hee, a county official.
Byeonsan County, too, drew opposition from a women's group after announcing its bikini discount, Gang said.
Under a blazing sun, with many local men in shirts and trousers and women holding parasols, the bikini contest began at 2 p.m. on the beach. A couple of dozen local young women appeared on stage, wearing cancan dresses and then changing into one-piece swimsuits.
Few women in bikinis or men in Speedos could be spotted on the beach. Several women in bikinis ran away when asked about their choice of swimwear.
"A lot of women won't wear bikinis because they don't want to get sunburned," said Choi Eun Jeong, 28, who wore a bikini but had not gotten the discount yet.
"I think it would have been better as a nude beach," her boyfriend
, Lee Woo Ho, 32, added, drawing an angry glance.
The bikini contestants, still in their one-piece swimsuits, showed off their talents. A few sang. One would-be flight attendant delivered flight information in Korean, Japanese and English. Another walked suggestively around the stage. An especially tall contestant danced provocatively, towering over the emcee, who compared her to an eel.
Watching the contest, standing atop a 12-centimeter, or five-inch, mound of sand that he had built, Byun Young Il, 35, bemoaned the fact that few men had chosen to wear the same kind of short swimsuit briefs he was wearing.
"In reality, it's better for Korean men to wear Speedos because their legs tend to be short and it makes them look taller," Byun said, a cigarette pack and orange-colored lighter sticking out of the back of his briefs.
"But they tend to be shy."
Professional models came on stage, sporting bikinis and swimsuit briefs. But as the bikini contest unfolded, chances that it would live up to its billing seemed to dim.
At the grocery store where Roh Yong Hwan, 24, worked, only about 10 people had asked for the discount since it went into effect.
"If what they're wearing is a little skimpy, or if they're at least wearing a bikini top, we'll give them the discount," Roh said.
The contest, as well as this summer day, was nearing its end. The beachgoers began packing up their belongings.
The eel woman was crowned
"Miss Byeonsan Bikini Beach."