BERNE, Switzerland - North Korea, a hereditary dictatorship under international pressure over its nuclear weapons programme and human rights record, has sent a representative to a travel fair in Switzerland to attract visitors to the isolated country.
Mountaineering, landmarks and the country's beaches are part of the sales pitch by the North Korea tourism representative, Ri Yong Bom. But the biggest pull for Westerners is the chance to catch a glimpse behind the last remaining Iron Curtain state. "Mostly, they are interested to see our system, how it works, how the people are living and what the present situation is," Berlin-based Ri told Reuters in North Korea's sparsely decorated stall at the four-day event in Berne, the Swiss capital.
The country does not publish tourist numbers, but travel agencies have estimated as many as 6,000 Westerners visit the country each year. The vast majority of tourists to North Korea are from neighbouring China, North Korea's main ally.
North Korea has attended Berlin's ITB tourism trade fair for several years, but Globetrotter Group Chief Executive Andre Luethi, who first had the idea for North Korea to come to Berne, said this was the first time it had attended a consumer-facing event. If the Berne fair is a success, Ri hopes to make presentations in other Swiss cities.
Tourism has been an increasing source of revenue for the impoverished state, particularly as its arms trade gets pinched under United Nations sanctions imposed for its missile and nuclear tests.
But prospective tourists may have to wait a while for a visit to North Korea. The country currently has a ban on foreign tourists due to concern over the deadly Ebola virus. Tour industry sources expect it will be lifted within the next few months.
In addition, various countries advise their citizens against going to North Korea. The United States Department of State, for example, "strongly recommends against all travel by US citizens to North Korea," according to the State Department. Canada "advises against all travel to North Korea." North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has an association with Switzerland. He studied in the Swiss capital Berne under an assumed name and is believed to have gone on school ski trips in the Alps.
Kim has sought to expand the country's tourism industry, personally directing the construction of a ski resort. North Korea approached several Swiss companies to provide chair lifts and cable cars, but the Swiss government added luxury sporting equipment to its list of goods banned under UN sanctions.
The United States has expanded sanctions against North Korea after blaming Pyongyang for a hacking attack on Sony Corp, and Ri said some tourists have been put off visiting the country amid the controversy.
Some have taken issue with North Korea's presence at the fair, and the Swiss section of Amnesty International organised a small demonstration outside the exhibition hall to ensure that potential tourists are aware of the criticisms against North Korea. "Inside they're showing the highlights for tourists,"Amnesty International spokeswoman Alexandra Karle said. "We want to show how it really looks there."