For those looking for an exotic vacation destination off the beaten path – and who don’t mind a side of leader worship and socialist propaganda – try North Korea.
After drastically closing its doors to all foreign visitors for the last six months, North Korea is once again open and eager to advertise the country to international tourists. The focus of the country’s tourism campaign is, naturally, on Kim Jong Un himself.
In 2014, about 100,000 tourists – mostly from China – entered North Korea’s borders. But the North hopes for 10 times as many tourists in the next few years, and for 2 million visitors by the year 2020, says Kim Sang Hak, a senior economist at the influential Academy of Social Sciences.
Pyongyang’s interest in attracting tourists may sound ironic for a country that has taken extreme measures to remain sheltered from the outside world. But Kim said the push for increased tourism traffic can be both a potentially lucrative revenue stream and a means of countering stereotypes of the country as starving and backward.
“Tourism can produce a lot of profit relative to the investment required, so that’s why our country is putting priority on it,” said Kim, adding that the country’s appeal is in its scenic mountains, secluded beaches, monuments and museums. The biggest appeal for visitors, though, is simply curiosity about the most private, isolated country on the planet.
“About 80 percent of the tourists who come are from neighboring countries,” said state tourism official Kim Yong Il. “It’s normal to develop tourism within your region, so our country is not exceptional in that way. But we are also expanding to European countries as well.”
The number of American and European tourists has been gradually increasing, but North Korea’s primary targets are nearby China, Russia and Southeast Asia.
While the overall quality of life in North Korea hasn’t shifted much in the past few years, efforts to build attractions for visitors and the infrastructure required to host them are already beginning to change the face of the capital city of Pyongyang. Some of the more popular tourist sites include a new high-tech shooting and hunting range, a new equestrian center, a huge water park and revamped “fun fairs” replete with roller coasters, a 5-D theater, and the upcoming opening of the capital’s new international airport.
In the bleak, resource-depleted countrysides outside of the capital, development has been focused on the area around Mount Kumgang and Wonsan, a port city on the east coast.
Tourists of any nationality can expect constant monitoring from government officials and guides, and severe repercussions if they break any rules. Tours to Mount Kumgang by South Koreans, for example, were halted after a South Korean housewife walked into a restricted area and was shot dead by a North Korean guard. More recently, an American tourist who left a Bible in a provincial nightclub was detained for nearly six months until the Pentagon sent a plane to retrieve him.