North Korea tourism 'booming' despite war threats

A handful of state-sanctioned travel operators have been guiding tourists through the otherwise secretive North Korea for several years now, and they say business is booming despite the nation's recent threats of nuclear war against neighbouring South Korea and the U.S.

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"All [our] sources are saying that this is just the latest — notably a particularly big wave — but still just another wave" of anti-Western sentiment, Richie Fenner, a 23-year-old Brit who has visited North Korea 20 times, told CBC News.

In 2010, he was teaching in China when a drinking buddy, Gareth Johnson, the founder of Young Pioneer Tours, piqued his curiosity about vacationing in the elusive nation.

Fenner signed-up for one of the operator's North Korean tours and, upon arrival, immediately noticed the stark contrast between China and North Korea: a smaller population, less traffic, less pollution and no advertisements in sight.

"You definitely feel you're somewhere very, very different to anywhere else you've been before," he says. So he invested in YPT and came on board as a guide for the company whose tagline is: "Adventure travel to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from."

Last year, the seven-person firm brought 500 curious travellers to North Korea, and Fenner predicts about 800 people will join their tours this year.

"Generally, the number of people emailing us, the number of people interested in coming to North Korea is rising," he said, adding that the numbers have been growing since the 2011-12 season.

Andrea Lee, CEO of Uri Tours which has been operating North Korean adventures for more than a decade, told CBC News about 300 people travelled with her company last year. She estimates that number will increase by 200 visitors over the next 12 months.

Lee and Fenner say more people are starting to become aware of North Korea as a tourist destination, especially after high-profile figures like retired NBA star Dennis Rodman and Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt recently travelled there.

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There is a popular misconception that it is impossible to travel to North Korea, said Fenner. Often, people tell him he's lying when he mentions what he does for a living.

But the reality is that a handful of government-sanctioned travel agencies, such as YTP and Uri Tours, are permitted to bring in visitors. Anyone travelling to North Korea requires a tourist visa, which the agencies help people obtain.

Uri Tours's most recent batch of tourist visa applications was approved in record time last month as the anti-West rhetoric was escalating, says Lee. This shows how accommodating North Korea is becoming, she adds.

South Korean nationals and journalists must apply for special visas, which can be a longer, more arduous process.

Tour agencies offer visits based on state-sanctioned itineraries. Typically, these trips include escorted tours around national museums and monuments, such as:

Giant bronze statues of the nation's leaders.

An exhibition hall for two types of flowers named after the nation's former leaders.

An alleged U.S. navy spy ship captured by the North Korean army in 1968.

At least one national North Korean tour guide accompanies tourist groups at all times. Foreigners must travel in groups in the country, and solo treks are not permitted.

Several years ago, VICE media produced a documentary travel guide to North Korea. The hour-long documentary depicted a highly structured tour during which participants were under constant surveillance and almost completely isolated from interacting with regular North Koreans.

"It is so, so sensationalized," said Lee, who had watched the show earlier that day. North Korea, she says, "is not as desolate or isolated."

Her company's tours visit places frequented by locals, like Pyongyang's metro system and the city's new skate park.

One trick for seeing more is to gain the trust of your group's designated guides, said Fenner. If the guides feel they can relax a bit, then the group is more likely to gain access to the so-called "off-itinerary" places that group members might ask to see.

Some of Fenner's groups have watched a demonstration of traditional Korean medicine at a hospital, toured emergency service stations and chatted for half an hour with school-age children.

"It's kind of small things like that," he said. "But, it makes a big difference to people's tours."

Still, the federal government warns Canadians to avoid travelling to North Korea "due to the uncertain security situation caused by North Korea's nuclear weapons development program and highly repressive regime," according to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada.

The U.S. State Department has also issued a travel warning for Americans planning to visit the country. Since 2009, North Korea has arrested four Americans for illegal entry. The country also detained two Americans with valid visas on other charges.

The warnings come on the heels of escalated conflict between the country and its identified enemies South Korea and the U.S., which have been running their annual joint military drills in the region.

North Korea responded by reinstating its nuclear weapons program and threatening chemical warfare against the U.S. Under new leader Kim Jong-un, the country recently performed its third nuclear test, barred South Korean workers from crossing its borders and reportedly transported a missile with "considerable range" to its east coast, facing Japan.

In late March, the federal government updated its advisory against North Korean travel saying the North's nuclear weapons development program has increased tensions in the region, resulting in unsafe travel.

Still, neither YPT nor Uri Tours plans to halt its North Korean operations.

YPT guides are closely monitoring the situation through inside sources, says Fenner, and will only cancel trips if the local government becomes unpredictable. New Jersey-based Uri Tours will stop travels periodically if the U.S. issues a travel restriction.

Both companies claim Western tourists are very safe in North Korea, even as the country is known for its human rights abuses and harsh punishments for perceived criminals.

"You're not going to get thrown in a gulag," said Fenner. "You'd have to go deliberately out of your way to do something to upset the Koreans. You can't sort of accidentally get yourself in prison."

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Still, there are plenty of rules for tourists to follow in a nation where visitors can expect to be closely monitored around the clock. Visitors must:

Respect the nation's current and former leaders at all times. When taking photos of their statues, they must be sure to capture the entire statue.

Not take photographs of military, construction sites and impoverished areas. These photographs may be deleted.

Not bring anything written in Korean.

Not walk around unaccompanied by their North Korean tour guide.

Both companies say North Korea has never detained anyone on their tours.

Despite the claims of personal safety, some argue it is unethical to participate in so-called poverty tourism, travelling to impoverished nations to gawk at people's misfortune.

In 2008, the United Nations World Food Program estimated that about 8.7 million North Koreans were in need of food aid.

Last year, the organization found that about 60 per cent of North Korean households were limiting their food portions, some by adding water to their meals.

The government does its best to hide the really impoverished areas from tourists, says Fenner, but the country's poor state is impossible to avoid.

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During a recent ask-me-anything thread on Reddit, one commentor asked Lee about this phenomenon, saying "part of the reason for visiting [North Korea] was the strangeness of seeing shops with no products or entering welcome buildings which are perfect except for something bizarrely important like light and heat."

In her response, Lee said that tourism helps boost the local economy, and that individual North Korean vendors and restaurateurs see some of those profits.

Tourism also sparks cultural dialogue, she said, especially at a time when governments are not co-operating. "It really does make a difference for people to go there, to interact with other people there and, on both sides, to stop demonizing each other."

Plus, it gives North Koreans access to the outside world, adds Fenner, making tourists the equivalent of cultural ambassadors.

"[North Koreans] don't have the internet. They can't just go and look at pictures."

These interactions have helped dull the anti-American sentiment in North Korea, said Lee. While she admits North Koreans dislike American policies, she said most like individual Westerners, waving to them on the streets and chatting with them.

"I don't think that it's true that they don't like American people."