Yangyang Airport in the mountainous northeastern province of Gangwon cost W356.7 billion to build but saw practically no air traffic between its opening in 2002 and 2009 (US$1=W1,092).
When it opened, government officials went out of their way to set up routes linking Yangyang with Gimpo in Seoul and Gimhae in Busan, but few people wanted to fly and regular traffic to the airport ceased in 2008. International flights in and out of Yangyang Airport resumed briefly during the peak vacation season, but even that ended in 2009.
This yea, however, Yangyang Airport has seen 23,000 domestic and foreign passengers pass through its gates, with the number expected to reach 32,000 by the end of the year.
These signs of life are the result of Gangwon officials rolling up their sleeves and promoting charter tourism to the province in Beijing, Harbin and other Chinese cities. Gangwon offered Chinese travel agents W10,000 for every Chinese tourist who uses the airport, and Chinese carriers were paid W2-4 million per flight to Yangyang.
The airport also exempted them from landing and parking fees and taught staff to speak Chinese.
With the exception of Gimpo, Jeju and Gimhae, 11 out of 14 regional airports are posting deficits of between W1 billion and W7 billion a year. They need to take their cue from Yangyang and join hands with their regional governments and map out a survival plan.
But relying on handouts from provincial governments is not a solution. Regional airports in Japan like Shizuoka managed to attract tourists when their provincial governments provided subsidies, but an extended economic slump made it difficult for regional governments to continue support, and the flights were either reduced or canceled altogether.
Yangyang Airport is capable of handling 1.93 million passengers a year. That means the current 30,000 passenger traffic still falls absurdly short of its potential. It needs to stay open until the 2018 Winter Olympics in nearby Pyeongchang and then it has to stand on its own feet.
That means a lot more Chinese tourists need to be lured to Gangwon Province by improving the region's tourism infrastructure, including transportation, accommodation and restaurants.