Guest blog by Tom Fowdy of Visit DPRK. Tom is a postgraduate student at the University of Oxford and runs the travel agency Visit DPRK. Here he gives his thought on the effects of the recent events on the Korean peninsula to tourism there in general
“Visit North Korea’s Easter Delegation and YPT at Panmunjom in Early April. Only weeks later, a historic summit would be held in the background building potentially seeking to end the decades-long conflict”
From March 28th to April 2nd we hosted our exciting Easter Delegation Tour in North Korea. The build-up to the trip had come on the back of a year’s worth of tensions, unease and fears concerning the Korean peninsula looming over it. This didn’t seem to put off our curious group. Yet, by the time it came for us to go to the country itself, an unprecedented window of change was opening. Just days before we set off, U.S President Donald Trump had vowed to meet Kim Jong-Un personally to resolve the long-standing tensions between the two countries, whilst Kim himself likewise vowed to meet with South Korean leader Moon Jae-In in Panmunjom, as we just witnessed earlier. Although it has been very much business as usual for the operation of tours throughout this entire process, the question looms now, how will the thaw in tensions affect tourism in North Korea?
First of all, although as noted tours ran as normal, it is fair to say that the existing tensions did reduce the number of western tourists going into the DPRK. The Pyongyang Marathon, for example, roughly had a 50% drop in participants earlier this April. The threat of conflict and the political heat ultimately scared many people away. In our own marketing for Visit North Korea, we certainly noticed ourselves in contrast to before 2017, many receptive groups simply lost the willingness to go. Traditional arguments such as “don’t give currency to the regime!” also became a lot more frequent as narratives concerning sanctions and nuclear weapons intensified.
It was a challenging time, but I am proud to say that we made it to the other end and that there is light at the end of this tunnel. Now, with the two Koreas aspiring to end the Korean war with a permanent peace treaty, we can certainly anticipate that interest in North Korea tours will increase again and with the constant news coverage, quickly as well. For everyone, aspiring tourists or not, the last few weeks have been a huge relief. Young Pioneer Tours have already reported that numbers are “on track” for 2018, so it’s not just something we hope that’s happening, it is something that is happening already.
But not only that, the move towards peace provides some new opportunities for tourism too. With Kim and Moon pledging “cultural and human exchanges” we should anticipate an eventual revival of inter-Korean tourism projects, which will mean the chance to enter the North from the
South to visit Kaesong, as well as the Mt. Kumgang resort. Whether South Koreans will get the opportunity to regularly visit the rest of the DPRK and Pyongyang, remains to be seen.
Whilst things will slowly pick up, some small obstacles remain. The marketing challenge of convincing people that North Korea is ultimately safe to visit, will always linger; but it is part and parcel of the package. The reality that North Korea will never be “Benidorm” just has to be accepted. Simultaneously, the future of the U.S tourism ban to the DPRK remains uncertain, which will hinge on the Kim-Trump talks. Either way, it is a positive time, a time to be optimistic.
The increase in tourism will ultimately mean in an increase in human and cultural engagement with North Korea, something which will continue to break down barriers and build bridges. We are looking forwards to the months that lie ahead!