Dennis Rodman isn’t the only Westerner who can take a trip (or two) to North Korea. Officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, North Korea is one of the world’s most secretive and closed-off regimes, and one of the most desperately poor, brutally repressed places on the globe. And while the U.S. State Department recommends against Americans visiting the country, North Korea loosened travel restrictions for American visitors in 2010. Since then, many tour operators say that the number of Western visitors to the country is growing every year.
“No official figures have ever been released, but the estimates vary from 3,000 to 5,000 Westerners visiting North Korea per year,” said Dylan Harris, owner of the British company Lupine Travel, which organizes one tour group each month and numerous private tours throughout the year. Harris’ company is responsible for taking about 500 of those visitors annually.
Estimates from other tour operators put the number of Western visitors at about 6,000. But the country’s biggest tourist draw is from China. While official figures aren’t available, Harris estimates that about 20,000 Chinese tourists visit North Korea annually.
But it’s not like you can just go online and buy a flight to Pyongyang. Visitors must book a guided tour with a company endorsed by the state-run Korea International Travel Company. Western tour companies are partnered with North Korean companies that act as their representatives. Visas are obtained for customers through the tour companies themselves, and that typically takes three to four weeks.
Jordan Harbinger owns Rebel Tribe, a California-based company that arranges tours to what he and his business partner call “a country trapped in time.” They also run HowToGoToNorthKorea.com, a site that answers questions about whether it’s safe to visit, why it’s worth visiting, what kinds of things tourists can expect and more.
Harbinger has been to North Korea four times himself, and he says it’s the perfect destination for travelers looking for something off the beaten path in the truest sense. “It’s very time capsule,” he says. “If you think Cuba is a throwback to 1950, you ain’t seen nothing till you’ve seen China circa 1950, which is essentially the DPRK.”
In fact, Harbinger says, North Korea is an ideal destination for people who want to completely unplug from modern life: “You’re not going to be able to go there and say, I need a pizza or a Big Mac. You won’t be able to check your email. That’s why I like it -- you really unplug,” he says.
Harbinger argues that the country great for entrepreneurs who never get a break from their fast-paced lives, or for creative types who need a place to find inspiration. And because the experience can be intense, says Harbinger, “Friendships that last a lifetime are born on these trips.”
And these trips can be surprisingly inexpensive: RebelTribe offers tours that include airfare, lodging, food and transportation for around $2,000.
To capitalize on the increased interest in travel to North Korea, British travel startup Uniquely.Travel launched an app earlier this year to help visitors plan their trips. Called simply “North Korea Travel,” the app features an extensive guidebook including must-see destinations, plus information on how to book a tour. It’s available for free in the iTunes app store but costs $6.50 in the Android Play store.
Of course, many Americans have questions about the safety of visiting a country like North Korea, especially given the news of tourists like Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller being detained in the country. Both the North Korea Travel app and HowToGoToNorthKorea.com aim to address those concerns in their FAQ sections.
Harbinger explains that “as long as you’re not really foolish, you’ll be fine.” Travelers need to respect the rules of the country and know what kinds of actions are verboten. His company conducts a thorough safety orientation before each trip so travelers know what actions to avoid.
“We advise people to read up on North Korea before visiting to get a deeper understanding of the country and its history. We also advise people involved in missionary work or with links to the Korean War to not visit. People should respect the beliefs of the North Koreans and not criticize the regime whilst visiting,” says Harris of Lupine Travel.
Critics have raised ethical concerns about how visiting North Korea contributes to supporting its oppressive policies. North Korea expert Stephen Haggard told Al Jazeera that even though there are small benefits of engagement between visitors and locals, "Because North Korea self-consciously limits such contact and tourism revenues ultimately flow back to a highly repressive authoritarian regime."
But Harbinger believes that interaction is the only way things will ever change. “Nukes are expensive,” he says. “But engagement is priceless.”