South Korea's Yeosu transforms for international expo

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A former port terminal in Yeosu, a small city on South Korea's south coast, has undergone a $10 billion transformation as it prepares to host a major international expo.

"Expo 2012 Yeosu" aims to attract 11 million local and foreign visitors -- especially from China -- as it showcases 105 nations during the event running from May to August, and many more afterwards.

As the opening date approaches, the sound of a giant organ with 50-metre-tall pipes echoes through the seafront site, bustling with activity as workers carry out final drilling, cleaning and painting.

Construction workers on a raised platform inspect the ceiling of a 218-metre-long (719-foot) gallery -- twice as long as a soccer field -- as it displays LED images of whales in the ocean.

Expo 2012 Yeosu is being held between the headline World Expos which are staged every five years. The last, in Shanghai in 2010, was an elaborate affair that raised the profile of the event, and the next will be Milan in 2015.

A total of 105 countries and 10 international organisations as well as dozens of firms will hold exhibitions under the theme of "The Living Ocean and Coast".

"This used to be a port terminal for cement bulk carriers until three years ago. Now it's an entirely different place," said Moon Young-Kuk, a spokesman for the event organising committee, at a media tour before the May 12 opening.

The 250,000-square-metre (2.69 million square feet) site houses pavilions, a giant aquarium, a pair of abandoned cement silos turned into a Sky Tower and a huge circular structure -- "The Big-O" -- for light shows over the sea.

Yeosu, a city of about 300,000 people, was previously best known for its cargo port and chemical industries.

Tourism in the area, despite a beautiful coastline and islands, was limited due to poor transport links and outdated infrastructure.

Now Yeosu is putting the finishing touches to preparations for the expo after spending nearly $10 billion to build the site and new hotels and to upgrade infrastructure.

"Preparations are 99 percent completed...it has been a long and hard road," said Kim Keun-Soo, secretary-general of the organising committee.

Organisers are hoping for up to 800,000 foreign visitors, especially newly affluent Chinese. Kim said Chinese had shown keen interest after their own country embraced the Shanghai World Expo.

For the Yeosu event, Chinese visitors have snapped up more than half of the tickets on advance sale and organisers have filled some 1,000 of the 13,000 volunteer helper posts with Chinese living in South Korea to better serve them.

A new ferry terminal capable of handling six cruise ships stands right by the exhibition site to accommodate tourists arriving by ship from China or Japan.

The city's domestic airport will also handle international flights from the two neighbouring countries during the expo.

The railway line has been upgraded, shortening the trip from Seoul by nearly two hours to about three hours. The exhibition site is five minutes' walk from a station.

Offshore, some 300 water fountain pipes shot jets high into the air as part preparations for nightly light and laser shows. The 47-metre-tall Big-O is the centrepiece of the site.

Firms like Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering have set up displays. DSME, the world's third biggest shipbuilder, is showing off dozens of futuristic robots used for deep-sea drilling.

Kim, citing government data, said the event will help create some 80,000 jobs and bring economic benefits worth 19 trillion won ($16.7 billion). Improved transport networks would cut shipping costs for businesses.

"But these numbers mean little... compared to the much-deserved reputation Yeosu will finally gain by holding such a global event and having so many visitors get to see the city," Kim said.

Kim expressed regret that North Korea will apparently not take part in what he called a non-political cultural event.

Pyongyang in 2007 voted in favour of Yeosu's bid for the expo but did not respond to an invitation made last November to take part.

"We are not giving up hope yet... but I'm afraid time is running out with each passing day," he said.

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