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Organizers hope Olympic Games will put Pyeongchang on the map

Nathan Fenno, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Olympics

PYEONGCHANG, South Korea -- Nestled deep in the Taebaek Mountains, the sprawling resort at the center of the Pyeongchang Olympics took shape a decade ago on hundreds of acres of potato fields.

The transformation includes three hotels, a casino, a concert hall, a convention center, a massive indoor water park, high-end shops and 45 holes of golf in the middle of one of South Korea's least-developed provinces.

In a region covered with vast stretches of dull-green forest, abandoned coal mines and isolated villages, the Games are seen as more than the 102 medals that will be awarded over 17 days. Instead, organizers and local officials hope the event that cost more than $11 billion will recast the area as a tourist destination.

"By the end of the Games, our region will be known to the world," said Choi Moon-soon, governor of Gangwon Province.

One tourism website dubbed the sparsely populated region -- 50 miles from the border with North Korea -- the "Alps of Asia." The snowpack and peaks don't measure up to their European counterpart, and visitors sometimes confuse its name with North Korea's similar-sounding capital, Pyongyang. But the region provides a unique setting for the Games. Pyeongchang bid on the Olympics twice before finally winning in July 2011, beating out better-known Munich and Annecy, France.

A new high-speed rail line connects the area with Seoul. Crumbling farmhouses sit next to condominiums under construction. Neon signs advertising kimchi spam rice as well as chicken and beer flash near a well-used tractor that's for sale. The annual Pyeongchang Trout Festival -- ice fishing is popular during the winter months in the province, which has about 43,000 residents -- wrapped up last month. In its place, robotic fish glide through a tank in the Main Press Center.

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"We have spent not only on hosting an Olympic Winter Games, but we have spent on developing a region," said Lee Hee-beom, president of the Pyeongchang organizing committee.

The Games are split between venues in and around Pyeongchang -- one of the country's coldest places, where temperatures routinely dip below zero -- and the more temperate 220,000-person coastal town of Gangneung.

"Now, having built all these venues, it is time to make the Games popular and create some excitement," Choi said.

A poll conducted by the organizing committee found almost 59 percent of residents in the province believe the Games will improve the area's international reputation, though 63 percent are concerned with the cost of maintaining the venues in the coming years.

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