Dennis Rodman may be the highest-profile American tourist to visit North Korea. But thousands of others have ventured to the reclusive
nation in the past two decades. And travel opportunities are
gradually increasing for foreign visitors with a taste for the unusual.
Beijing-based Koryo Tours
escorted 2,000 clients to North Korea last year, about a quarter of
whom were Americans, says the company's managing director, Simon
Cockerell, who estimates 6,000 or so Western tourists visit annually.
number of places and areas of the country we have been able to gain
access to has increased greatly, and continues to do so every year," he
Indeed, until 2010, American visitors were allowed into the
country only during North Korea's annual Arirang Mass Games, a
synchronized gymnastic performance that has been dubbed the "greatest,
strangest, most awe-inspiring political spectacle on Earth." The games
are usually staged in September in the capital of Pyongyang.
Koryo now offers a range of itineraries from two nights to about
three weeks. Not that North Korea is by any means a mass-market
"The food was terrible. The hotels were threadbare.
The cities were bleak. It was a great vacation," Douglas Clark, a
financial consultant from Draper, Utah, said of his 2012 trip there.
"It's actually interesting because it's just so strange. I wanted to see
it while it was still weird because it's not going to be like that
Clark traveled with a group of about 25 from Beijing to
Pyongyang, where they took in the last day of the Mass Games, then set
out for parts beyond. His travel companions were a well-educated,
well-traveled bunch, some of whom were ex-pat Americans living in China.
group was closely monitored by "handlers" as they toured a model farm,
an elementary school and countless statues of vaunted leaders Kim il
Sung and Kim il Jong.
But the guides were kind and sincere, Clark said. "They genuinely wanted us to have a good impression of North Korea."
U.S. tour operator Mountain Travel Sobek began
offering North Korean itineraries in 2012, with a $9,000 tour (that's
about five times the annual income of the average North Korean), but
prices have dropped for its two 2014 departures. The 10-day tours start
at $4,695, plus airfare.
Another U.S. operator, Chicago-based Asia Pacific Travel suspended
its 2013 tours to the country citing the "unfavorable geopolitical
situation" on the Korean Peninsula, and has no tours scheduled for this
Travelers who do venture to this off-the-beaten-path spot
will find a capital city that resembles '50s-era Soviet Russia, with
rows of concrete apartment buildings, few cars and fewer stores. But
the countryside is lovely. Even an encounter with an armed soldier while
running on a beach in a northern resort area didn't diminish the
overall experience for Clark.
Nor did exchanges with North
Koreans, who seemed eager to meet Westerners. Clark, who lived for two
years in Seoul decades ago, had, like many South Korean visitors, been
to the Korean Demilitarized Zone dividing the two countries and was
curious about what lay beyond.
"I wanted to get past the news and
demystify the place," he said. "What's beyond those hills isn't menacing
and bizarre. It's just people."
MORE: Dennis Rodman Sings Happy Birthday to Kim Jung Un
MORE: Rodman Teammate: N. Korean 'Mission Accomplished'