Last updated: 09:00 PM ET, Thu December 03 2015

North Korea Tries to Draw More Tourists Without Dropping its Paranoia

Destination & Tourism | Josh Lew | December 03, 2015

North Korea Tries to Draw More Tourists Without Dropping its Paranoia

PHOTO: Pyongyang, North Korea. Tour operators are starting to see this once-isolated country slowly open to tourism. (Photo courtesy of Thinkstock)

You are looking for somewhere totally out of the ordinary for your next vacation; someplace that no one you know has visited yet. Some very remote places might come to mind: Antarctica, Mongolia, Greenland.... 

Now that Cuba is opening up to American travelers, there is one "nobody’s-been-there-yet" destination that stands out above the rest: North Korea. 

The travel world’s last frontier?

This secretive state, which has been ruled by the same family for three generations, has somehow managed to remain closed off to the world despite the end of the Soviet Union and the economic liberalization of China. North Korea is hardly considered a tourist destination. Aside from the highly publicized trips by South Koreans to reunite with their long lost relatives on the other side of the DMZ, North Korea is not really a desirable destination for anyone.  

The US State Department has reserved some of its strongest wording for the pariah state:

"The Department of State strongly recommends against all travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, or DPRK). Travel by U.S. citizens to North Korea is not routine, and U.S. citizens have been subject to arrest and long-term detention for actions that would not be cause for arrest in the United States or other countries.” 

An unexpected push to grow tourism

Despite this, North Korea has actually been pushing to grow its tourism industry. The country is trying to maintain its legendary security and secrecy while also cashing in on curious tourists from China and the West who want to see behind the world’s last iron curtain. 

Visitors who want to come here have to arrange a trip through one of a handful of approved tour companies. In order to operate in the North, these firms have to follow a strict set of rules and carefully choreograph their sightseeing excursions so that tourists only see approved attractions.

Still a paranoid security state

According to a report by the Associated Press, some of the rules that tourists have to follow can be a bit of a shock:

“On North Korea's flagship airline, Air Koryo, cabin attendants sternly scold passengers shooting souvenir photos and delete anything they decide is inappropriate. English-language newspapers are available on most flights, but crumpling them will bring a lecture and possibly require a written apology. Newspapers inevitably feature photos of Kim Jong Un and defacing the leader's image is a serious crime.” 

At customs, any type of book or electronic device will be subject to intense scrutiny. This might leave some travelers with a conundrum: “Do I bring my laptop and have it searched by customs, or would it make them more suspicious if I just left all my devices at home?” 

It’s actually better now than it was 10 years ago

Luckily, most of the travel firms that operate tours in the country can guide visitors through packing and also check to make sure they are not bringing anything that could be frowned upon (porn, bibles, pro-South Korean materials of any kind). 

Once inside the country, tourists are escorted everywhere. Going off itinerary in any way could bring trouble. Even having an innocent chat with a local North Korean on the street could turn out to be a no-no (that will bring a scolding for you and perhaps worse for the hapless pedestrian that happened to cross your path). 

All that said, North Korea used to be worse. Tour groups can now visit a larger number of places - eight or nine provinces according to the AP story - and see much more than they could a decade ago. Still, the level of paranoia, which quite frankly seems ridiculous in an era when even Cuba is warming up to the world, will certainly keep most travelers away.    

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