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Jeju: Museum Heaven or Tax Haven?

Driving around Jeju island and you’ll come across not just white sand beaches and UNESCO World Heritage sites but an endless succession of museums. In fact, tourists can choose from over 100, on themes as diverse as Greek mythology, seashells, African art, teddy bears, sex and health, and stone turtles — to list but a few.

Some 15 million tourists visit Jeju every year, traveling both from the South Korean mainland and neighboring countries such as China, Japan, and Malaysia. Government statistics indicate that in 2016 92.8 percent of South Korean tourists visited nature-related tourist spots and 20.7 percent visited museums; the corresponding figures for  foreign tourists were 97 percent and 35.4 percent, respectively.

Yet the 48 registered museums in Jeju account for about 6.3 percent of the 761 institutions listed nationwide by the Korean Museum Association, despite the island being home to only 1.2 percent of South Korea’s population. When privately owned museums not registered with the association are included, this number reportedly passes 100. Even more puzzling is that many of the island’s museums in no way reflect the island’s cultural and societal identity or local art scene.

“The government promotes museums because of the need to strengthen the tourist infrastructure on the island,” said Kim Young-ho, an art critic and professor of Western painting at Seoul’s Chung-Ang University.

“But it has become easier for museums to become certified ever since the central government passed its museum certifying functions to local governments. Moreover, tax cuts for museums have encouraged investors to build them.”

In fact, facilities built for tourists enjoy significant tax benefits in South Korea. A document published by the Korean Museum Association lists 15 perks, including exemption from real estate tax, inheritance tax, and gift tax.

Predictably, this has led to a proliferation of museums on Jeju Island. However, the themes of many commercial museums tend to reflect short-lived consumer trends and therefore often end up closing not long after they open.

Yang Eun-hee, director of Seoul cultural venue Space D, believes the current phenomenon is detrimental to the museum industry as a whole.

“Many privately owned museums in Jeju are merely commercial galleries and have nothing to do with art. The tourist-centric mindset is not only threatening Jeju’s identity but also destroying its culture,” she said. 

 

Cover image: Culture on tap at Jeju Loveland (Source: PXHere)

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Kathy is a business intern and a producer of the podcast team at Korea Exposé. She was formerly a marketing coordinator at a startup in Seoul, and a graduate of Wesleyan University.