Spiritual leader investing millions turning Kerikeri into global base

New Zealand Herald/September 6, 2018

A Korean spiritual leader says he plans to spend $35 million building an ''Earth Village'' in the Bay of Islands and bring an extra 10,000 visitors to the region each year by 2025.

Seung Heun Lee, known as Ilchi Lee to his followers, is building a global youth training centre for his Earth Citizens Organisation (ECO) on the outskirts of Kerikeri.

Lee is the founder of a global yoga movement, a businessman and best-selling author, and inventor of a ''belly button healing wand'' which he claims boosts brain and gut health.

If completed as planned his Earth Village will include cabin and dormitory accommodation, a restaurant, training hall, conference centre and physical training areas on a 156ha Pungaere Rd property near Puketi Forest. The land is currently a mix of farmland, pine and native forest.

The Earth Village is modelled on an existing ECO centre in Arizona, United States, but Lee has said he wants the Kerikeri site to become the organisation's global youth training hub.

Trainees are expected to come from around the world and stay for one to three months.

Lee's Earth Village proposal was firest revealed in the Northern Advocate in April last year but the scale of his investment was revealed in a presentation to a Far North District Council meeting in Kerikeri last week.

ECO trustee Yewon Hwang said Lee, who didn't attend the meeting because his English was limited, had already brought millions of dollars in revenue and investment to Northland since 2014.

That included $11m in real estate purchases, $5.3m in infrastructure development, $5.3m from his tourism business and $600,000 in wages to more than 20 employees.

Investment in the Earth Village alone was expected to reach $35m by the time it was finished.

Lee already had retreats in the US, Canada, Japan and South Korea but he wanted to build a place where people could learn sustainable living skills related to housing, energy, recycling and the natural environment, Hwang said.

With only a fraction of its planned infrastructure built, Lee's tourism company, Meditation Tours, already brought more than 2400 visitors to the Bay in 2017. That number could reach 10,000 by 2025, she said.

Meditation Tours' business wasn't weather dependent so many of its customers came in the shoulder and off-seasons, helping spread Northland's tourism earnings throughout the year.

Hwang also told councillors ECO was working with Northland iwi Ngātiwai on a series of Māori youth suicide prevention and youth development projects, and with Northland Inc on research into possible antimicrobial properties of New Zealand's native five-finger and seven-finger plants.

She was aware of ''negative publicity and speculation'' about the group's activities, but said their intentions in New Zealand were entrepreneurial and philanthropic.

Their goal was to ''help people step away from their daily chaos and awaken to their innate potential, while recharging their mind, body and spirit''.

The group wanted Kerikeri to be the centre of its international operations, she said.

Lee had already met Far North mayor John Carter, chief executive Shaun Clarke and MPs Shane Jones and Kelvin Davis.

Hwang was supported by Lily George, an ECO trustee and research director for Ngātiwai Trust Board.

Real estate purchased by Lee's companies, Meditation Tours and Double Pine Investments, includes four top-end homes in Kerikeri, a tourism complex in Haruru Falls, Marty's Cafe and Golf Range north of Waipapa, and a 25ha Whangaroa Harbour waterfront property.

Lee could buy the properties without Overseas Investment Office approval because he has been granted permanent residency under the investor category.

Meditation Tours had also planned to build a martial arts training academy on the Marty's Cafe and Golf Range site, off SH10 north of Waipapa, but withdrew its resource consent application in February this year after running into opposition from nearby residents.

Lee made his fortune as the founder of Dahn Yoga, described as a blend of yoga, tai chi and martial arts. He has developed a brain education programme he claims can tap into the full potential of the human brain.

An article in Forbes magazine in 2009 said Dahn Yoga had 1200 centres in nine countries with global revenue of 170 billion won ($230m).

Dahn Yoga is not without controversy, however, with critics in the US accusing the movement of manipulating young people and persuading them to enrol in expensive brain-development courses.

Hwang told councillors the movement had been misunderstood in the US due to ''cultural differences''.

In January this year Lee's companies attracted Immigration New Zealand attention due to breaches of employment and immigration rules. They have since hired an accountant adviser and bought better software to address mistakes in holiday pay and record keeping.

In recent years Lee, 67, has stepped back from Dahn Yoga to focus on his Earth Citizens Organisation.

Many of his followers use a yellow, hammer-shaped ''belly button healing wand'', which Lee claims stimulates the belly button for gut and brain health, energy, and stress and pain relief.

He first visited New Zealand in 2014 and was convinced to set up a base in Northland after being ''amazed by the purity and peacefulness''

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