North Korea has reopened its doors to tourists for the first time in four years, with a group of Russians arriving in the secretive state today for a four-day trip.
The tourists are the first tourists to visit the country since the beginning of the pandemic. In early 2020 North Korea imposed strict border controls to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and has been closed to foreign visitors ever since.
The four-day, three-night course will stop at Pyongyang and the Masikryong ski resort, according to a Telegram post published by the government of Primorsky Krai, a region in Russia’s far east that borders North Korea and includes Vladivostok.
The post describes North Korea as “one of the most fascinating and mysterious countries in the world” and promises that visitors will have the opportunity to “immerse yourself in the country’s culture”. The tour operator running the trip, Boctok, sold places on the trip for US$750 (£593) per person, spending one night in a four-star hotel and two in a five-star hotel.
It is not clear whether this trip will signal the return of tourism for other international travelers. Simon Cockerell, general manager at Beijing-based Koryo Tours, told Reuters: “It’s a good sign, but I would hesitate to say that it will lead to a wider opening because of the special circumstances for this one tour.
“But since there have been no tourists to North Korea for over four years, any tourist trip can be seen as a positive step forward.”
The North Korean border remains closed to British tourists, and the FCDO advises against travel to the country unless absolutely necessary. He says: “Although daily life in the capital city of Pyongyang appears calm, the security situation can change rapidly with no advance warning of possible actions by the authorities.”
Regent Holidays is one of the tour operators who have organized trips to North Korea in recent years. Carl Meadows, product and travel specialist at Regent, visited more than 30 times. He said no one knows when the borders will reopen to British tourists, but he hopes it will be soon.
“It’s the million dollar question,” he said. “There is a lot of speculation about it, in the same way that there has been regular speculation about the fall of the government for many years, but the truth is that nobody really knows.
“With careful assessment, and with certain criteria in place, we would hope to be among the first to resume a holiday to North Korea. Regent has always had a pioneering spirit, and we were the first tour operator in Britain to send clients to North Korea back in 1985.”
The United Nations has criticized North Korea’s human rights record, while Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have highlighted the country’s lack of free speech and prison camps for those found guilty of political crimes. Between 80,000 and 200,000 prisoners are reported to be subjected to forced labour, physical abuse and the possibility of execution.
These reports have not stopped Regent and other specialist tour operators, including Cox & Kings, from running tours in the country in recent years. “We focus on the attractiveness of the destination and its people, and we believe that tourism is one of the best ways to expand the minds of locals and visitors, and distribute wealth to different levels of society,” says Meadows.
In 2015, Kim Jong-un announced plans for the country to expand its tourism offer to two million visitors per year. However, this did not materialise. Before the pandemic, only about 5,000 foreign visitors (other than Chinese tourists) were allowed into North Korea per year. That’s around half the number of people who queue for the London Eye every day.
Some visitors have suggested that tour groups to North Korea are only shown a carefully crafted version of the country. Travel TelegraphMinty Clinch said there was “very limited real mixing” on her visit. Carl Meadows confirmed that things are kept under close watch.
“All visits to North Korea are strictly controlled,” he said. “This usually means that each group (be it one person or 20) is assigned two guides and a driver. All itineraries are pre-arranged and pre-paid with little flexibility. Trips are usually designed to see the ‘highlights’, but the same could really be said of any trip anywhere in the world.
“The longer one stays in the country, the more you see of the ‘real’ North Korea. A three-night tour will give visitors a completely different perspective from a more in-depth 18-night tour, which would cover every province and reveal, sometimes unintentionally, a more authentic side of the country.”
Meadows said he could fill a whole book with strange North Korean encounters: “Being involved in evacuation drills across the city, flying to remote locations in military helicopters, being put through a traditional dance on national television. No two days are ever the same.
“Its culture is deep, its history rich and its citizens are some of the most hospitable and good-natured people in the world. But of course, you’re unlikely to believe me unless you go and experience it for yourself.”