Isolated North Korea a visitor draw, but sometimes literally a tourist trap

Isolated North Korea a visitor draw, but sometimes literally a tourist trap

SEOUL - "Taking you to places where your mother would rather you stayed away from." That's how one Western travel agency advertises its tours to North Korea.

The US government doesn't want you to go there either. Three of its citizens have been detained in the last eight months while on tourist trips to North Korea, including Jeffrey Fowle, a visitor from Miamisburg, Ohio, who was arrested in May.

Despite the risks, tour operators say business to North Korea is booming, albeit from a low base for one of the most isolated countries in the world. For Pyongyang, tourism is one of the few sources of the foreign currency it relies on to overcome US sanctions related to its nuclear and missile programs.

While the country does not publish tourist numbers, travel agencies estimate as many as 6,000 Westerners visit the country every year, compared to just 700 a decade ago. Most are adventure-seekers curious about life behind the last slither of the iron curtain, and ignore critics who say their dollars are propping up a repressive regime.

The vast majority of tourists to North Korea are from neighbouring China, North Korea's main ally.

"People are people," said Keith Ballard, an American tourist currently in North Korea. "I can take politics out of it.

"Did anyone have any ethical concerns about me traveling here? Yes they did, some people said why would you even go there to support that government," he said by telephone. "I said, hey it's basically just tourism."

Last month, the US Department of State said it now "strongly recommends" against all travel to North Korea, citing the risk of "arbitrary arrest."

Joshua Stanton, a Washington D.C.-based lawyer who served with the US military in South Korea and writes a blog on North Korea, says the tourist dollars prop up the government of Kim Jong Un, the third of his family to rule the country.

"The companies selling these overpriced tours need customers gullible enough to believe that they'll be safe there, and that their visits will somehow change North Korea for the better," he said in an e-mail. "The first claim is false, and the second claim is dubious."

BOOKINGS RISE TENFOLD IN 10 YEARS

The warnings do not appear to be having much effect.

Beijing-based Koryo Tours, one of the biggest operators sending Westerners into North Korea, has seen a tenfold rise in business in the past decade, peaking at about 2,100 visitors in 2012, according to Simon Cockerell, its general manager.

Around a quarter of those, Cockerell said, were American.

Troy Collings of Young Pioneer Tours, another China-based foreign travel agency specialising in trips to North Korea, says his company is seeing business double annually, and had nearly 1,000 clients in the past year.

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