Incheon transforming itself into economic hub
By Na Jeong-ju
Incheon, the country’s second-largest harbor city located just west of Seoul, has gained global attention in recent years with the construction of the Incheon Free Economic Zone (IFEZ), the centerpiece of its plan to become a business hub in Northeast Asia.
The IFEZ is now in its second-phase stage of development that will continue until 2014, when the city will host the 17th Incheon Asian Games. By then, the economic zone will house the Northeast Asian headquarters of hundreds of foreign firms, scores of foreign universities and international organizations, Incheon officials say.
Yet it has a bigger goal and greater ambitions.
Despite growing economic uncertainty in the wake of U.S. credit downgrade, Incheon is positive about realizing its goal of becoming one of world’s top 10 cities by 2020 by drawing 20 million foreign visitors and tourists annually.
Even though it had a slower start compared with Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in the fierce competition to become an Asian business hub, Incheon has outgrown such rivals thanks to various advantages.
First, it has a superb distribution network, with Incheon International Airport in the city. Equipped with cutting-edge facilities, the airport has been lauded as one of the world’s best international plane terminals.
Korea’s advanced information technology has also boosted its position. Incheon plans to foster state-of-the-art business circumstances in its free economic zone with a district specializing in global businesses to help firms establish regional headquarters for R&D, finance and distribution.
The theme of the development project is “Compact, Smart and Green.”
As a “compact city,” everything from high-tech industries, medical services and leisure activities to housing will be in a cluster within a radius of five kilometers.
It also aims to become a “smart city,” in which all buildings will be equipped with state-of-the-art technologies so that residents can live a truly ubiquitous life.
The push to be a green city shows Incheon’s desire to be eco-friendly. The IFEZ will have the highest rate of green areas among new towns in Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, according to the city government.
“That’s not just a dream,” Incheon mayor Song Young-gil said during a recent interview with The Korea Times. “We are positive about the future of Incheon and its potential to become an economic driving force for the whole country.”
What will make the dream come true is the IFEZ, now being built on reclaimed land three times larger than Manhattan.
Incheon officials said one of the reasons why the IFEZ is attractive to international investors and firms is Korea’s optimal geographical location, with easy access to mainland China and other major Asian markets.
The country also boasts of advanced information technology and manufacturing facilities, as well as talented human resources.
The IFEZ has also been making an all-out effort to create a state-of-the art business and residential environment for international investors and companies, with roads, bridges and other urban infrastructure currently under construction.
“The IFEZ has been playing a key role in attracting foreign direct investment, spearheading Korea’s plan to transform itself into a financial, logistics and business hub of Northeast Asia,” a spokesman said.
By 2020, when the development plan is completed, about 4.84 million new jobs will be created and gross domestic product will increase by 1 percent every year.
“We are aiming to attract about $27.6 billion in foreign investment by 2020,” he said.
The IFEZ comprises of three designated areas ― Songdo, Yeongjong and Cheongna ― on a total area of 50,000 acres.
Songdo is being developed into an international business district with knowledge-based information technology complexes, including the Techno Park, a digital entertainment cluster and bio-industry complexes.
It will have a population of 430,000 by 2014. Thousands of residents and hundreds of global companies and research centers plan to move to Songdo or have already moved there, which would provide up to 40,000 jobs.
The Yeongjong area includes the 13,888 acres of the international airport, 4,900 acres of the airport support area, 1,740 acres of the Yongyu-Muui Tourism Complex, and 703 acres of the Unbok Leisure Complex.
The IFEZ plans to develop the area into a world-class leisure and recreational tourist zone.
In addition, the Cheongna area will have international sports and leisure complex and floral complexes on 4,400 acres.
One of Incheon’s top priorities is to create a better place to live in and do businesses for foreign residents.
The IFEZ has developed diverse programs to reflect their opinions on drawing up related policies and promote cultural exchanges with Koreans. In early August, it invited 44 native teachers at Chadwick International School in Songdo to sessions on how to adapt to Korean society.
“We taught them various rules they must know to live in Korea and shared information about Korean culture, food, laws and custom,” said a spokesman of the IFEZ Global Service Center, which organized the sessions.
“Foreigners can feel many inconveniences due to cultural differences and lack of practical knowledge about living in Korea. We plan to hold such sessions for foreigners regularly to help them adapt to Korean society.”
As part of such efforts to make Incheon a foreigner-friendly city, the IFEZ has been conducting surveys among foreigners residing in the area about living conditions there. Based on the data, it has improved community services for expats.
The poll is divided into several categories such as general living conditions in Songdo, habitation, transportation, medical services, culture and community services provided by the IFEZ.
In the poll, respondents can evaluate the business and living environment in Songdo as well as locals’ attitude toward visitors. They also can suggest opinions on improving public transportation services inside the IFEZ as well as foreign language information services, according to the Global Service Center.