Yesterday a report from China’s Global Times speculated that 2019 would see tourism to North Korea boom. With the political situation on the Korean peninsula stabilizing and Kim Jong un set to meet with American President Donald Trump for the second time, conditions to visit the country have undoubtedly became more favorable. The article noted that North Korea itself has been aiming to strengthen its tourist industry, placing political priority on the economy and seeking to thwart the impact of sanctions. Tourist targeted developments in Sinuiju and Wonsan, including the construction of hotels, resorts and casinos have been given much attention by the country’s authorities. Whilst undoubtedly, more western tourists will be willing to visit in the current climate, it remains extremely unlikely that the DPRK can ever become an ordinary or popular “tourist destination” in the way countries in South East Asia have done.
Why is tourism in North Korea such a discussed topic? In 2016, Kim Jong un set a target to attract 1 million tourists to the DPRK within a 5 year period, hence the enormous investments discussed above. However, this is at best a pipe dream. It doesn’t consider how the country is perceived to the majority of the world. In addition, it didn’t take account for political events either. 2017 proved to be a bad year for DPRK tourism. An exchange of hostilities between Pyongyang and the United States saw many people put off. Numbers fell across the board.
Now however, circumstances have changed dramatically. Although differences remain, the DPRK have placed a lot of effort in a rapprochement with Washington and Seoul which have eased people’s fears. Rather than potential conflicts, most people are speculating just what form a peace arrangement between the countries will take in the long run. This has inevitably, improved the prospects of tourism. Widespread coverage of Kim Jong Un meeting Donald Trump and President Moon Jae in has made people curious about visiting North Korea again. In turn, customer numbers of tour companies had rose again.
Of course, this does not mean North Korea is going to be any more of a tourist resort now than it was before 2017. Whilst these conditions are positive, it does not mean we should be carried away at the idea of the country becoming some kind of tropical paradise or resort as seen as Spain or Thailand. Let’s not forget, it is the DPRK. Peace alone will not ease people’s apprehension and imagery of the country. When you think about travelling to North Korea, you don’t think about having a relaxing holiday or sitting on a beach, you think about an adventure, something thrilling, the opportunity to do and experience something completely different. This doesn’t accommodate the vast majority of the international tourist market and as a result, unless the country itself dramatically changes, things will stay that way.
So in summary, 2019 will be positive for North Korean tourism, but not radical. There’s a lot to be optimistic about, as numbers will keep growing and people will keep being curious, but the transformation of the country into the new Bali or Benidorm? Not a chance. Overall, most of us in the industry are just happy “business as usual”: has returned.