Pyongyang, North Korea – When you land at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport, yours very likely will be the only plane that day disturbing the quiet, although rather bumpy, runway. And yet, the airport, with its single tiny terminal, has recently experienced an uptick in traffic.
According to estimates by travel operators, North Korea receives around 6,000 tourists a year. In comparison, the continent of Antarctica over the same period receives over six times that.
But for the handful of agencies that provide tours to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, business is growing.
“Bookings to North Korea have increased each year since we launched in 2007,” said Dylan Harris, founder of UK-based Lupine Travel. Harris said his company took 500 tourists to North Korea in 2013.
Young Pioneer Tours, another North Korea travel specialist, said they have doubled their bookings every year since they started operating in December 2008.
“We get people from small-town America, socialism fanatics, country collectors, people who are into the architecture,” said the owner, Troy Collings, of their wide variety of clientele.
And where can you go on one of these tours?
One operator said customers can visit cities such as Rason, a port on the northeast tip of the country, or Chongjin, North Korea’s third biggest city, or Kaesong in the south (which is only a short stop away from the demilitarised zone), as well as the country’s scenic mountains that dominate the Korean peninsula’s landscape.
Visitors can circumnavigate the country if they wish, although the itinerary is filled with propaganda with tour guides enthusiastically trumpeting the nation’s achievements and industrial advancement.
Regulations and perceptions
Tourism is tightly regulated and tourists cannot walk around the streets freely – Korean guides must accompany you every step. But some visitors are surprised by the amount of interaction they can have with locals.
The Russians see Soviet Russia, Germans see East Germany, the Chinese see China under Mao, and the Americans see all the propaganda.
Gustavo Buttes, a Brazilian who went on a week-long tour at the end of April, was able to walk around Pyongyang’s Morabong park without supervision for a couple of hours.
“May Day was something incredible to see – people out in the parks having fun, playing football and getting drunk. By interacting, you realise they’re real people and struggling to live, just like us”, he said.
Another tourist, Andrea Keller from Germany, said what she found surprising was the poverty in the countryside and “people working with the most primitive tools”.
Rich Beal, a British tour guide working the North Korea route says people often see their own country reflected back at them. “The Russians see Soviet Russia, Germans see East Germany, the Chinese see China under Mao, and the Americans see all the propaganda,” he said.
“Everybody was talking about poverty. I couldn’t see that,” says Nathalia Alves, a Brazilian who visited in May, of her fellow tourists. “In Brazil there are areas much poorer than North Korea. Of course you can see they are not rich. And that is the difference.”
Individual tourists made headlines recently, such as 24-year-old Matthew Todd Miller who was detained in April for ripping up his visa in customs in Pyongyang’s airport and demanding asylum. Miller, from Bakersfield, California, will be put on trial by the North Korean authorities for “rash behaviour”, along with fellow American, Jeffrey Edward Fowle, 56, who was detained a few weeks after Miller, for leaving a bible in a hotel room.
Despite these cases, and the fact the US State Department officially recommends that all US citizens avoid travelling to North Korea, tourism seems a small but growing industry for the country.
But just how do western companies set up business with the notoriously hard-to-reach North Koreans?
In 2007, Dylan Harris, then 28 years old, took a trip across Russia and China on the train. After reaching China, he went up to the northeast. “While there, I met somebody who had contacts with North Korea and he was able to get me inside [North Korea] with just a few days notice.”
Harris’ first trip to the country intrigued him, and he came up with the idea of setting up the business that would become Lupine Travel, thanks to the contact he had made.
“Initially it was very difficult to set up the meetings with the North Koreans, as it was a matter of building trust. However, due to the good relationship my contact in China already had, this helped me significantly. There were meetings in London, Dandong and Pyongyang that took place mainly in Korean with a translator,” he said.
Harris said he is in the process of starting a local office in Sao Paulo following a “significant increase” in bookings from Brazil and will also take in his first Japanese client for a golf tournament.
Where does the money go?
Travel providers like Young Pioneer Tours, and Koryo Tours, which, founded in 1993, is the longest running tour provider, had quite fortuitous beginnings. Both companies were started after chance encounters with North Korean officials while visiting the country.
Every western travel agency has a North Korean partner who acts as representatives from the Korea International Travel Company – a DPRK government body.
Of the companies interviewed, many stayed silent when asked about how much of their revenues go to their North Korean partners. That response is understandable given that it is widely thought that the tourism industry is aiding the North Korean regime by generating much-needed foreign currency.
Stephen Haggard, a North Korea expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said that, although there may be some small benefit from engagement between outsiders and locals, the downsides are high. “Because North Korea self-consciously limits such contact and tourism revenues ultimately flow back to a highly repressive authoritarian regime.”
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The head of a tour company who wished to remain anonymous, said the income generated from tourism is not high: “It’s a very, very, small amount of money. You have, maybe, 4,500 westerners visiting the country last year. That’s not a lot of money. They have to build hotels, fuel buses; petrol’s expensive, training guides are expensive, providing these very good meals are expensive. Tourism is not holding up the regime. They [the government] may want it to be a source of income for the future; the reality is not what it’s going to be.”
Others like Adam Cathcart, an expert in Sino-Korean relations, believes the increase in Chinese tourists to the country will help strengthen historical ties between the allies, and perhaps improve the infrastructure of North Korean cities across the Chinese border.
For those who visited, ethical questions did arise. “I thought about whether I was supporting this maniacal government by going there, and I had friends question it,” said Martin Thrasher, an American who’s been on a tour.
Rebekah Guillory, another American visitor, said tourism can be a way to open up oppressive governments, likening it to the “opening up” of Myanmar.
“To the individuals who would object to supporting a country’s government through tourism, they honestly have an extremely short list of countries, if any, to visit. Most countries have questionable human rights records, even my own,” Guillory said.
“Tourism can be a useful way for some developing countries to earn foreign exchange and provide employment,” said Haggard. “But there are so many other priorities that demand attention that focusing on this seems somewhat misguided to me. Opening to other forms of foreign investment would make more sense.”