Won-kyu Kang works behind the front desk at I Want Resort, which was built in 2016 for Olympic visitors.
Yes, we have vacancies: Won-kyu Kang works behind the front desk at I Want Resort, which was built in 2016 for Olympic visitors. Mikensi Romersa/CityLab

Three months after the end of the Olympics, the resort town is all but deserted.

On a sunny weekend afternoon in Pyeongchang, South Korea, 34-year-old Gu-ru Suh and her parents wandered near Alpensia Sports Park, one of the many sports complexes developed for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Three months earlier, the area was swarming with international visitors watching ski jumping, bobsledding, and other mountain events. But on this weekend in May, hotels were nearly empty, cafes were shuttered, and the resort was eerily quiet.

“We expected some stores and more stuff going on, but it’s different,” said Suh. “There’s not a lot going on right now.”

South Korea spent nearly $14 billion on the Olympics, with organizers pitching the games as a way to help develop Pyeongchang County, one of the poorest regions in the country. The hope was that that the Olympics would turn the mountainous area into a booming all-season tourist destination. That vision may yet be realized, but visitors today could find little sign of it. For now, Pyeongchang faces daunting maintenance costs for Olympic venues that are struggling to find occupants.

Take the ski courses, some of which were carved into forested mountains. There’s a plan to reforest the area, but so far, the snowless runs remain rocky and bare of vegetation. With monsoon season on the way, experts are concerned about mudslides. Critics say government bodies are dodging responsibility for funding the reforesting efforts until after elections in June.

Like the snow, other signs of the Olympic effort, such as Pyeongchang’s disposable Olympic stadium, have simply vanished in the spring. Designed as a temporary structure, the stadium, which cost approximately $60 million, was disassembled soon after the last gold medal was awarded. Other venues have also been torn down. But Jiyoung Lee, a spokeswoman for the Pyeongchang 2018 Organizing Committee, said the Olympic facilities were designed for post-Games uses as much as they were for the actual event. Many will remain open as venues for future competitions, she said, and the committee hopes they will be used as a training base ahead of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing.

Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College and frequent critic of Olympian overreach, puts little stock in that kind of post-Games optimism. “They always provide a positive spin on the venues,” Zimbalist said. But if there was no demand for a bobsled track or skating facility in Pyeongchang before the Olympics, it’s unlikely to materialize now. He’s critical of the idea that the Olympics can spur economic development. The International Olympic Committee, he says, should stop marketing the games as an economic driver; instead, they should be held in permanent venues, to cut down on the unrecoverable costs to host countries.

Pyeongchang has some unique challenges that could make recovering its Olympic investment particularly difficult. Unlike many previous Winter Games host cities, the area has previously enjoyed only minor winter sports-related tourism, and the local economy is dominated by fishing and agriculture. Residents hoped hosting the Olympics would continue to draw Korean and international visitors, but so far that doesn’t appear to be happening, despite the addition of a high-speed train that cuts the trip from Seoul to less than two hours. Instead, much of Pyeongchang looks like it did before the games—a small farming community.

Visitors arrive at Jinbu Station on the high-speed rail line built for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. (Mikensi Romersa/CityLab)

Epic Olympic hangover stories are common among previous host cities: Montreal famously took 30 years to pay off the debt of hosting the 1976 Olympics; venues in Rio de Janeiro (2016) and Athens (Athens) quickly descended into ruins. Roger Park, an associate professor of sports business at Hanyang University in Seoul, worries the same will quickly happen in Pyeongchang. But local pride and South Korean patriotism has made him reluctant to discuss this grim prospect. “As a Korean, if I want to bring up some negative issues about Pyeongchang, they don’t want to listen to me,” Park said.

Among people who live and work in Pyeongchang, however, the lack of tourist activity makes the value of the Games harder to ignore. Su-ra Sim, who works in the café A Twosome Place, worried about the cost. “I have to pay the debt,” Sim said. “Three more generations will pay the debt.”

At lunchtime, a noodle shop sits empty in Pyeongchang. (Mikensi Romersa/CityLab)

At Yongpyong All Seasons Resort, hotels are nearly empty, and cleaners scrub floors that already shine as they wait for guests. “This hotel was here before the Olympics, but with so many more, there is more competition,” said So-yeou Kim, who works the front desk at the hotel. “I expect there will be fewer people staying here.”

But the new hotels don’t appear to be doing much better. One, the 200-room I Want Resort, had only only 17 rooms occupied on a Friday in May, according to Won-kyu Kang, a front desk worker. Its cavernous white lobby was silent.

At the Noodles Tree Restaurant, In-gui Jeung, 47, waited for customers. He opened the restaurant in 2016, in the hopes of cashing in on a visitor windfall to Pyeongchang. “When I opened this restaurant, I expected maybe we have a lot of tourists,” Jeung said. “But it’s not so many tourists now.”

For tourist Gu-ru Suh, who was traveling with her family, a few hours in Pyeongchang was enough. Soon after the family arrived, they were back in the car, heading away from Pyeongchang for the coast. For her part, Suh worried the country’s Olympic legacy is an expensive disappointment that South Korea will be paying off for years.

“I don’t think people know about how much money was spent,” Suh said. “If they find out, I think they’ll be angry.”

—Matt Neuman, Eli Imadali, Jiakai Lou, Melissa Loveridge and April Hummel contributed to this story.

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