Imagine a country with scenic mountains, some with “surreal” rock formations similar to those you might see in China, uncrowded ski slopes, ancient temples, and a general feel of a place that hasn’t changed all that much in the past few decades.
It holds an annual marathon with opening and closing ceremonies held “in a stadium filled with thousands of cheering North Koreans,” according to a dispatch from eTurboNews.
It also has the dubious honor of being the most closed, secretive society in the world today.
Obviously, we’re talking about North Korea, where tourists — especially Americans, with the notable exception of Dennis Rodman — have been made to feel less than welcome. Some American tourists have even been detained for long periods of time or sent to prison camps based on flimsy evidence of spying or even of proselytizing, such as the man who left a Bible behind and was detained when he tried to leave the country.
But, along with various cryptic “signals” sent by government officials in the past few months, possibly indicating more openness to the outside world, North Korea has been slowly warming up to the tourism concept. After all, hard currency brought in by tourists helps keep their military might strong, their leaders well fed, and may even make for a softer image for their Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un.
A First for the World Travel Market
The latest development is that a Shanghai-based tour operator, called Experience North Korea, will be exhibiting at the World Travel Market (WTM) in London next week.
It will be a first for the WTM, which is the leading annual travel show in the world, filled with hundreds of exhibitors from around the globe. Each hawk their tours or destinations to thousands of industry members and potential tourists.
Experience North Korea will try to convince attendees that North Korea is the next “must-see” spot on the map, perhaps replacing Myanmar as the place de jour to go for 2015.
Experience North Korea Shanghai-based managing partner Nathalie Armengol, who will represent her company at the WTM, says she first visited North Korea last year as a tourist and was “blown away” by what she saw (presumably, not literally).
“We always joke and say that going to North Korea is like going to another planet,” she says. “So, effectively, it’s the cheapest trip into outer space you can buy.”
Then Armengol gets serious about the potential benefits. “Images promoted by the Western media are not always accurate and are always negative,” she says, perhaps forgetting about the excellent publicity fomented by Dennis Rodman. “We can take you there, so that you can form your own opinion: see for yourself.”
I’m all for that. I’m a big believer in the benefits of world travel and generally oppose strict (and often petty) visa regulations that keep people from visiting other countries. But North Korea doesn’t make it easy — they now attract only about 5,000 foreign visitors per year.
Obtaining a Visa and Abiding by Travel Restrictions
North Korea does issue tourist visas to most people who apply — including Americans, except for journalists, who need special permission — but entry is pretty much limited to flying in from China, where you’ll pick up your visa, and you have to travel to and in North Korea by pre-paid organized tour. There’s no strictly independent travel where you just go off on your own and explore.
Organized tours can either be with a group, which is the most common way to go — and the least expensive, perhaps U.S.$200 a day almost all-inclusive — or it can be as small as just one person, as long as you are accompanied by a guide, otherwise known as a government minder.
Should you wish to add North Korea to your bucket list — and, one hopes, it’s not a kick the bucket list — you’ll need to pay close attention to your guide and not photograph anything that might be seen as controversial (always check first).
Say nothing even remotely negative about the country’s Supreme Leader — this is the time to heed your mother’s advice that if you can’t say anything nice about someone, say nothing at all.
Don’t extol the wonders of capitalism vs. communism, the freedoms of democracy vs. the lack of them in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (as North Korea is officially known), the superiority of religion over godless atheism, or anything remotely pro-American about the Korean War. Don’t note how modern and prosperous everything is in South Korea.
It’s okay to talk about the weather, as long as you don’t complain that it’s cold or raining. (That’s a joke — I think.) The basketball skill of Dennis Rodman is also a safe topic, as are the exuberant crowds at the Pyongyang marathon, and, of course, the beneficence of the current ruling dynasty. Unless they think you’re being sarcastic, which could win you two years at hard labor.
The U.S. does not maintain diplomatic ties with North Korea and has issued strong warnings against traveling there, so Americans are essentially on their own, and any problems will also reflect badly on your North Korean guide.
Checking out the Sights
What will you see? That will vary a lot between the particular tour and your guide/minder, but count on a succession of war memorials, museums, perhaps a scenic mountain or two, a walk and short subway ride around approved areas of Pyongyang (the capital), some visits to state-run souvenir shops, and a visit to the DMZ (demilitarized zone), which, ironically, is highly militarized (but be careful not to note the irony). You might be able to visit a beach or even go surfing.
You’ll stay only in approved tourist hotels or resorts and, for the most part, eat only in tourist-designated restaurants without much choice of what you’ll get.
But you didn’t come to North Korea to experience joie de vivre. You came because it’s there. And, of course, to experience the country for yourself and see if what I’m writing is just negative Western media propaganda.
Ironically, as an American journalist, I probably won’t be able to find out for myself.
So let me know how it goes.