North Korea tourism isn’t exactly a thriving industry. Part of the reason for this is the strict nature of travel in North Korea. Foreigners must always have a guide with them and can only enjoy certain experiences. Also lending to the relatively low number of foreign visitors is the country’s rather poor international reputation. That being said, North Korea welcomes thousands of tourists on an annual basis, mostly other Asians, and has been looking to expand its tourism industry on the whole. Recently, for example, the country’s largest border town – Sinuiju – was opened to Western tourists.
Sinuiji is separated from China’s Dandong City by a river and has long been a popular travel destination for Chinese tourists. What’s the allure of a Sinuiju visit for Western tourists, you might be ask? According to the founder of Young Pioneer Tours, Gareth Johnson, “North Korea is living history. Seeing something truly different. There’s not as much adventure left in the world as we would like.” Young Pioneer Tours is based in Xi’an, China and specializes in budget North Korean tours for Westerners.
North Korea tourism is organized by one of several state-owned tourism bureaus and is highly controlled by the government. Tourists must book guided tours and be accompanied by their tour guides at all times. For Westerners, there are a few private tour operators that can help arrange access to North Korea. In addition to Young Pioneer Tours, these companies include such operations as Uri Tours, Koryo Tours, Asia Pacific Travel, Regent Holidays, and Explore North Korea. These companies take care of everything, including visas and flights, and charge a single fee for their North Korea travel packages.
Previously, United States citizens were only allowed to visit North Korea during the country’s famed Mass Games, which is a performing arts celebration that revolves around gymnastics and is usually held in either late summer or early fall. As of 2010, however, North Korea changed this policy. The country now allows U.S. travelers to visit on official guided tours at any time of the year. This has served to increase U.S. interest in North Korea tourism and has led to a small increase in the number of U.S. visitors. It should be noted, however, that U.S. citizens still face restrictions that don’t apply to travelers of other nationalities. For example, U.S. citizens can only enter North Korea by way of plane, while travelers from other countries can arrive via airplane or train.
Once in North Korea, foreigners must be accompanied by their assigned tour guides at all times. They must also limit themselves to specific destinations and attractions. This isn’t a country where you can just show up and start exploring to your heart’s desire. Most tour companies take foreign visitors to see the main North Korean highlights, which include special events and the monuments and museums that can be found in the country’s capital city of Pyongyang. Various natural attractions, such as Mount Kumgang, are also starting to figure among the North Korea destinations that Westerners can visit. Mount Kumgang, aka Diamond Mountain, is one of the best-known mountains in North Korea and is part of the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region. This tourist region is situated in the southern part of the country and borders neighboring South Korea.
Western travelers to North Korea are essentially assigned a hotel when they book their comprehensive North Korea travel packages. The hotels that are available are typically found in the capital city. Examples include the Koryo Hotel and the Yanggakdo Hotel. Of particular interest among the North Korea hotels is the Ryugyong Hotel. The tallest structure in the country, it has yet to be opened, even though construction began in 1987. The Ryugyong Hotel’s rather odd situation has led some to label it the “Hotel of Doom.” Not exactly the best nickname, but interesting nonetheless.