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

Wed Jun 11, 2014 6:32pm EDT
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By James Pearson

SEOUL (Reuters) - "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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 neighboring 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 U.S. Department of State said it now "strongly recommends" against all travel to North Korea, citing the risk of "arbitrary arrest."   Continued...

North Koreans celebrate the New Year by visiting statues of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung and former leader Kim Jong Il at Mansudae hill in Pyongyang, in this January 1, 2014 file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang. REUTERS/KCNA/Files