What’s the best way to get foreign revenue when you’re an impoverished nuclear-armed state with an economy damaged by mismanagement and international sanctions? If you’re North Korea, you convince the people of the world to fork over thousands of dollars for a dream vacation to the propaganda-laden streets of the Hermit Kingdom.
KCNA, the state news agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK, reported Wednesday that the reclusive nation would direct “big efforts” to build tourism into one of its major industries in the coming years.
“The country has a bright future to develop tourism,” Jo Song Gyu, director of the International Travel Company of the DPRK, told KCNA, adding that North Korea was “abundant in tourism resources.”
Gyu said the country planned to open up regular air routes between Pyongyang, Lake Samji and Wonsan for local and foreign tourists in the near future. The country also hopes to expand air routes to China from Beijing to cities like Shanghai and Yanji.
“Air services will also be available for people in Southeast Asia and Europe to come to DPRK for sightseeing,” Gyu boasted. “Wonsan and Mts. Maeku and Chilbo areas are likely to be linked with other countries and regions by air services.”
The director’s ambitious plans do not stop there. He said economic development zones to be built in each province would serve as tourism destination, while hotels in Pyongyang would be renovated “at the world’s level.” Plans are also in the works for fitness centers, service complexes and souvenir and duty-free shops for tourists.
“The government will allow foreigners to launch independent business or joint venture in the country to invest in tourist resorts and economic development zones and construct and manage hotels, shops and other tourist facilities,” Gyo said, adding that North Korea would render preferential treatment to foreign businesses that come to the DPRK sooner rather than later “so that they can begin making profits as early as possible.” The DPRK is particularly interested in inviting experts for development of tourist resorts and the operation of hotels and restaurants.
While a North Korean official has rarely been so direct in his plans for the nation’s nascent tourism sector, the country has made several steps toward buoying its industry in recent years. Most, however, have ended it complete failure.
German luxury hotelier Kempinski made the shocking announcement last November that it would open at least 100 rooms by the end of 2013 at the long-abandoned Ryugyong Hotel, North Korea’s tallest building. Amid growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula this April, it made the less shocking revelation that it had pulled out of the project.
Michael Henssler, regional president of Kempinski China, boasted to International Business Times in December that the Kempinski-branded five-star hotel would “absolutely meet international standards,” including five revolving restaurants, a spa, business center, ballroom, shops and even an artistic center at the base with a theater and cinema. It remains unclear whether the so-called “Hotel of Doom” is indeed doomed, or if Pyongyang will open it without an international partner.
Beyond the troubles at Ryugyong Hotel, North Korea’s resume of failed tourist projects is a long one. One of the first leaps into luxury travel was a proposed cruise ship from the rundown northeastern port of Rason to the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang, launched in September 2011. In reality, the ship was an aging ferry banned from traveling to Japan under U.N. sanctions, and after inviting the global media for a ride, the ferry-cum-cruise made just two more voyages, according to Tad Farrel of NK News.
More recently, KCNA documented leader Kim Jong-un’s plan to construct a “world class” ski resort to rival the facilities under construction in South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games. The hope was that the hills well beyond the eastern edge of Pyongyang would look remarkably similar to those surrounding Pyeongchang, the 2018 Olympic host city. Yet, attempts to purchase ski equipment, including lifts, have all but failed under U.N. sanctions on luxury goods.
While North Korea makes its bombastic claims about the potential for tourism, the figures speak another story. Last year, just 4,000 Westerners and 20,000 Chinese visited the nation. Chinese predominantly arrived for trips 48 hours or less, while most Westerners came in with specialist groups like Young Pioneer Tours or Koryo Tours (each of which are met by government minders who restrict interactions with ordinary citizens).
Yet, numbers are rising. Chris White, travel director of Young Pioneer Tours, told IBTimes last month that tensions on the Korean Peninsula earlier this year only increased interest in North Korean travel, with customer bookings double what they were in 2012. Nick Bonner of Koryo Tours, which ushers in about half of all Westerners, said his numbers were also up for the second half of 2013.
“More people now know it is possible to visit the DPRK and are interested in seeing it,” White explained. “We estimate that as North Korea continues to open up to foreign tourists, our tours will continue to grow in popularity with record numbers."
Bonner, too, said “it seems tourists still see North Korea as a safe destination and one to tick off on their world travels.” But he cautioned that, even looking at the record numbers of visitors over this past month’s Mass Games, “by world standards, this is still ‘low season’ with under 2,000 Westerners visiting at this time.”
Gangnam Style saw some 11.1 million international visitors horse-hopping to South Korea last year. Comparatively, North Korea might as well be on the moon.
Mark Johanson is the travel editor at the International Business Times. He has traveled to and written about more than 30 nations and territories on every continent except...