Japan and Korea are looking further into attracting young office dwellers into the great outdoors, offering fresh air and physical labour for bed and board. The “workcation” concept originated in Japan in the past several years now, the idea has gained traction in South Korea, which is also facing its own rural declining demographic issue.

With its underpinnings in the quest for an improved work-life balance, this concept marries professional responsibilities with a change of scenery, typically in idyllic locales (i.e. field work or forestry). One such beneficiary of this trend is South Korea’s Jeju, which has become a leading workcation hotspot in that country, as previously reported in Korea Biz Wire.

Jeju, traditionally renowned for its bustling tourism, is adapting swiftly to its newfound status as that industry changes with the generations. The province’s governing body, recognising the economic potential, has fostered this movement by offering financial incentives to companies that engage with provincially accredited private workcation providers.

To delineate the province’s strategic vision, a government representative remarked, “The rationale behind championing companies that opt for Jeju as their workcation site is our belief in their substantive contribution to sustainable regional economic growth.” Such an approach is not only rejuvenating Jeju’s economy but is also viewed as a beacon of hope for localities grappling with population declines.

Indeed, the broader implications of the workcation movement are far-reaching. As individuals flock to these destinations for extended durations, they act as a catalyst in spurring local economic activity, mimicking the effects of permanent resident contributions. A few may even stay on and relocate full time to these locations, or that is the hope of the local authorities.

Gokseong leading with digital enterprise

Yet, while Jeju stands as a testament to the urban appeal of workcations, there are burgeoning efforts to transpose this model to South Korea’s rural areas in a larger way. Gokseong County, situated in the South Jeolla Province, offers an illustrative case in point.

In the face of declining populations, Gokseong’s younger demographic, displaying enterprise, is endeavouring to revitalise local economies by optimally repurposing underutilised infrastructure. A flagship initiative borne out of this endeavour is the so-called Rustic Town project, championed by young entrepreneurs who formed a local cooperative aptly named Farmnd.

Rustic Town, as envisioned by Farmnd, amalgamates workspaces with vacation venues. The underpinning ethos of this venture is to address the pressing issue of rural depopulation, whilst also underscoring the necessity of ensuring a sustainable populace for continued community growth.

The county authorities, having acknowledged the potential of this avant-garde approach, have thrown their weight behind the project. Funds from the Local Disappearance Response Fund have been earmarked to augment Rustic Town’s infrastructure.

Promoting “Workcation” concept on the international agenda

In 2023, South Korea plans to introduce two new visas: Workcation visa and K-culture visa. These visas are supposed to attract foreign travellers and help rebuild the tourism system in the country. Similar to the Australian, Canadian and New Zealand systems where young people work in the country for a period of time, the aim is to fill a gap. How successful this will be as it rolls out remains to be seen.

The country’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism and relevant government agencies have developed a tourism development plan for the next 5 years (from 2023 to 2027).

The main goal of the programme is to attract 30 million people every year and earn three billion dollars in tourism revenue by 2027, according to its estimates.

It is in order to achieve this ambitious goal that the Korean government has announced that it will issue the K-culture study visa and the Workcation visa for foreign nationals seeking to explore Korean culture. However, this specific visa offer is not likely to bring people to rural areas.

Reusing old schools which have shut down

As per the project’s blueprints, by December 2024, a sprawling 14,000 square meter expanse, previously occupied by Samgi Middle School, will undergo a metamorphosis. The proposed layout envisages fifteen modular workhouses, an expansive shared office space, modular homes tailored for rural study programmes, and a community centre aimed at bolstering rural study-abroad initiatives. The overarching objective? To optimally harness the benefits accruing from an inflow of people, not just tourists.

With financial backing secured, Farmnd remains hopeful about the project’s prospective allure to corporate entities from Seoul. This, they contend, would further bolster Gokseong’s appeal as a prime workcation locale.

While the workcation model from South Korea, exemplified by regions like Jeju and Gokseong, offers an appealing blueprint for addressing rural depopulation and economic rejuvenation, its transplantation and success in the UK and European Union remain speculative. The socio-cultural and economic landscapes in European nations are intricately distinct from South Korea, raising pertinent questions about compatibility. Would the British and European work cultures, renowned for their vacation time and an already evolving remote work framework, seamlessly adapt to such a model?

With the EU’s diverse political tapestry and regulations, would a unified approach to incentivising workcations be feasible, or would this result in a patchwork of regional initiatives? As remote work technologies advance, it will be interesting to observe whether the workcation model carves a niche for itself in the Western hemisphere, or whether it remains an eastern phenomenon.

This remote work model has been previously featured in the Future Economic Rural Network’s “Ferncast” podcast series in our interview with Matt Dunne, the founder of the US Centre On Rural Innovation. You can listen to the podcast here on SoundCloud