North Korea opens door to tourism

Many may not be aware; the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) has welcomed tourists for many years, albeit the activity received minimal publicity. According to Neil Plimmer, the PATA DPR Korea Task Force chairman, the country offers intriguing holidays, rich in unique experience and a safe environment. He believes North Korea can achieve its full potential, given time, to grow in the Asia Pacific tourism field.

At the 53rd PATA Annual Conference on Jeju Island in Korea (ROK) held April 18 until April 22, Plimmer officially released the New Directions Through Tourism, PATA’s North Korea Task Force findings. Based on the 5-man team analysis of the North’s tourism products, it emphasized on marketing efforts, air access, ground operations, infrastructure and modernization of the flag carrier, Air Koryo.

North Korea may not come to mind as a hot spot, but certainly people’s curiosity grows as the communist nation continues to make big headlines.

Asked how the North Koreans can develop and promote tourism using marginal resources, Plimmer told eTurbo News despite the circumstances, the potential for tourism growth through economic and social benefits remains high. North Korea can forge ahead. . “through intensified and targeted marketing, aimed at a range of national markets including short-haul, specifically China, South Korea and Russia, all with common borders with North Korea; through medium haul, specifically  Singapore and other affluent areas of South East Asia; and long-haul, specifically through a range of countries in Western Europe,” he said.

Plimmer felt ground operations were entirely satisfactory; but recommended increase in air access by both Air Koryo and foreign carriers, and by charter and scheduled flights, as demand warrants. The 76-page report contains suggestions on how to set things in motion in the DPRK through media relations, arrangements with selected tour operators, and national branding.

In 2003, North Korea temporarily closed its borders and tourism was devastated as the SARS epidemic swept through Asia, reported PATA. In the last week, South Korean ferry to the Kumgang Mountain was stopped in honor of the former chairman of Hyundai Asan Chung Mong-hun. However, as the North Korean main holiday calendar becomes busy, tour companies world over tailor packages for clients booking group travels. Otherwise, a free independent traveler will be required to book ‘group tours’ in any case.

Tourism is entirely organized on a pre-packaged basis. “Tours can be arranged for one or two people as well as larger groups; and guides are government appointed,” said Plimmer. “And standard is high.”

There is very frequent traffic from South Korea and Japan, and business travel to the main cities and across the Chinese-North Korean border.

Plimmer said, “Visitor arrival statistics are not comparable to most other countries. But main leisure arrivals appear to be South Koreans visiting the resort at Mt. Kumgang, Russians visiting the Northeast, and medium and long-haul visitors staying in Pyongyang and the Kaesong-Mt. Myohyang corridor.”

Standard tours taken in Pyongyang and a variety of other points in North Korea feature attractive mountain scenery and historic sites including Buddhist temples dating back to the 10th century. Plimmer stated that a full tour takes 16 days.

PATA reports North Korea welcomed Americans during the Arirang Festival last year but shut its doors again. Plimmer said, the Task Force was advised that intending visitors from all countries except the USA and Israel can obtain visas. “Application should be made through the tour company or to a DPRK Embassy.” While no unusual requirements are further set by the government, allowance for a 10-day turnaround time is a must.

North Koreans are extremely devoted to their leaders, past and present. They still revere Kim Il Sung, the country’s eternal president, 10 years after his death. “I would clearly not recommend that tourists engage in ‘derogatory remarks and inappropriate conduct’, in DPRK or anywhere else,” said the team chairman. The Task Force felt the pride the people felt for their country was impressive. The team saw very few signs of an army or police presence however.

Traveling to North Korea is expensive, $1300 to $2000 for every package, according to PATA.  Hotels in the area the task force visited were state-run. International chains are non-existent. “Hotels we saw rank about three-star, but it was difficult to be precise: in some respects, including the basic structure of the hotels and room size of the main hotels would warrant a higher grading. In some other respects they would benefit from some upgrade.” The team noted occupancies in terms of foreign visitors were low.

Initiatives such as marketing twin destination activities involving the two Koreas may up the numbers. “The first steps would be to make it easier for visitors to take in both on the same trip. Joint marketing and tour arrangements could follow as circumstances permit.”

While the task force saw ‘upmarket’ Pyongyang, one wonders why the international community worked against time shipping out tons of rice and food supply to a supposedly famine-struck or a ‘food-short’ North Korea.

Surprisingly, no evidence of the situation was reported by the team.

Development with such small-scale tourism the team envisions will come through the existing infrastructure and support, although over time substantial new investment would be needed both for upgrading and new plant.

“With better-funded and carefully-targeted marketing, numbers could grow quite rapidly. Market segments with a curiosity over this destination need to be made more aware that they are welcome to visit it and that there are plenty of interesting things to see.”

Still many question how tourism can prolong playing against the backdrop of the North Korean nuclear arm’s proliferation. And how events will pan out given 2 possibilities – North Korea disarms as Libya did or stays at the top of the arms race.

On Sunday April 18, Kim Jong Il crossed into China on a special train to discuss the North’s nuclear arms program with the Chinese President. His entourage arrived Monday in Beijing for the nuke summit.

While North Korea is ambivalent the future of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, it the country continues to moves onward with tourism programs.  To that end, PATA’s team assured they have never heard of any terrorist attacks on the DPRK, and felt the country was a “very safe” tourist destination.

eTN Florida
author: Hazel Heyer – your news source for the travel and tourism industry.

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