This year a new tour operator has emerged that seems to confound some of those expectations about a tour to the north. UK based operator Political Tours has teamed up with the well established Koryo Tours to create, (as its name would suggest), tours that are deliberately political. Surprisingly the DPRKâ€™s tourism officials seem happy to comply.Â In the second of a regular feature showcasing unique itineraries to the DPRK, we interview Director of Political Tours, Mr. Nicholas Wood, to find out more about the itinerary.
1.Â Â Â Â How long has Political Â Tours Â been around for and what motivated you to set Â up the Â company?
I set up the company after a decade of working as a reporter in the Balkans had given me the desire to give people the same opportunities I had as a reporter. In other words, the ability to go places, ask questions, meet people and really explore the news at first-hand. The other basic thought I had was that we are surrounded by news â€“ and some of us take a serious interest in it, read multiple papers and listen to the World Service or NPR. It seemed to me an obvious idea. Why hadnâ€™t anyone created it before?
It also acts as a counter-point to a world where twitter and blogs reign, and serious newspapers are under pressure. The company is also part of a new trend in travel that puts greater emphasis on life-changing or challenging experiences.
2.Â Â Â Â What kind of destinations do you offer tours to, and what country has proved most popular so far?
We look at regions that are pivotal regions in international affairs such as the Middle East, the Caucasus and theÂ Balkans. Soon we will explore issues closer to our base in the UK. These include Scotlandâ€™s drive for independence, and the UKâ€™s economic crisis. North Korea was an obvious choice, and so far it is the tour that receives the most inquiries.
3. What kind of tourists do your tours typically attract?
Our clients cover a huge spectrum of people â€“ from inner-city kids wanting to learn lessons from conflict zones, to news editors and politicians and officials who have a professional interest in a particular region. (They might belong to an NGO or a think tank for example). But now the huge majority of inquiries are coming from people who are interested in current affairs and just want a challenging or stimulating break.
4. With so many other companies offering trips to Â the DPRK, what sets your tours apart from the competition?
While we cover some of the more conventional sites such as Mansudae and the Truce Village, both the itinerary and the speakers involved in the tour break the mold of most visits to the north. Our first tour this October is led by James Hoare, the former British diplomat who established Britainâ€™s first diplomatic mission in Pyongyang.
The itinerary also includes visits to some unlikely visitor attractions â€“ schools, universities, a working port â€“ in short we are attempting to see a realistic a slice of life in the north as possible.
Another difference is the series of pre-tour briefings that we give our clients in Beijing before they head for Pyongyang. Participants get to hear analysis on North-South relations. NGOs brief on their work with communities in the country. Chinese analysts also give their take.
5. How open were the DPRK authorities to the concept of a political tour of the Â DPRK?
Surprisingly open I think â€“ Essentially we could request to go to most places within reason and they have been willing to set that up. There are obviously some boundaries, and Koryo Tours our partners have provided us with excellent advice on that front.
6. You offer discounts to think-tank staff – are North Korean authorities open to scholars critical of Â the country to go and visit?
I think that depends upon the individual concerned. We know of some who clearly can not go, but equally there are others who have been openly critical and are able to come and go.
7. HaveÂ you received any criticism for offering tours to North Korea?
The critics will say that we are supporting an undemocratic regime by visiting it.Â I know that some people who have left the DPRK are critical of tours to the region.Â Our aim though is to try and provide insight into key current affairs issues no matter where they are.
We do our very best to give people multiples sides of different stories and issues. And thereâ€™s no way of doing that properly with out going there. We are certainly sensitive to that, but believe that the contact and insight is worthwhile.
Our pre-tour briefings in Beijing involve some of the most widely respected experts on the region, as well as NGOâ€™s and Chinese analysts. We donâ€™t publish these details though on the website.
9. In a sentence or less, why should someone interested in visiting the DPRK go on your October tour?
Weâ€™d like to think that these will be the best informed trips on the market, and ones that will give people as realistic a view of daily life inside the DPRK as possible.
For more information about Political Tours October itinerary, please visit their website.
Day One + Two Pre-Tour Briefings in Beijing Talks by leading regional and international experts.
Day Three Travel to Pyongyang Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang (13:00), meet guides at airport. This flight needs to be booked separately.Â Tour of key sites: Arch of Triumph, Fountain Park and Mansudae Grand Monument, the largest statue of Kim Il Sung and a place of pilgrimage for North Koreans. Dinner and overnight in Koryo Hotel, Pyongyang.
Day Four Pyongyang and Wonsan
Morning visits to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, Kim Il Sungâ€™s giant mausoleum and the Tower of the Juche Idea, 170m stone monument devoted to the guiding philosophy of the country. Â This is followed by Moranbong Park, a meeting place for ordinary Koreans. In the afternoon we drive to Wonsan, a major port city on the east coast of the DPRK. Walk through Wonsan Docks. Dinner and overnight in Wonsan.
Day Five Education and Industry
A rare visit plus meetings with students and faculty atÂ Wonsan Agricultural University.Â Songdowon International Schoolchildrenâ€™s Camp; a visit to a summer camp frequently used by visiting schools and sports teams. Drive to Hamhung, the second largest city in North Korea which was closed to tourists until 2010, a place almost no visitors have ever seen. Tour of a factory, one of the best known in North Korea. Overnight at Majon Guesthouse, hotel on a beach.
Day Six The Koryo Dynasty, Land and the Revolution
Visit to the home of Ri Song Gye â€“ assassin and founder of the Koryo Dynasty; discussion of the importance placed by Koreans on the geographical integrity of their territory. Visit Hamhung Grand Theatre, and the Tongbong co-operative farm, frequently visited by Kim Jong Il. Explanation of the agricultural system and meetings with farmers and return to Wonsan. Wonsan Revolutionary Museum. Dinner and overnight in Wonsan.
Day Seven Ideology, Technology and Culture
Return to Pyongyang. Lunch at Pyongyangâ€™s Pizza restaurant and visit to The Three Revolutions Exhibition. This giant museum space shows off North Koreaâ€™s industrial history. Museum of Party Foundation. Dinner and overnight in Pyongyang.
Day Eight Â The Korean War and Life Today
We look at the Korean conflict from North Koreaâ€™s perspective, and see aspects of peopleâ€™s ordinary lives in the DPRK now. Underground Revolution Museum. Ride Pyongyang Metro. Â Mansudae Art Studio, a giant art factory â€“ an opportunity to buy local and official art pieces. The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. War Victory Monument Park with â€“ excellent views of city. USS Pueblo (American espionage vessel captured in 1968). Mangyongdae Native House, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung in 1912. Dinner in Mangyongdae District. Kaeson Youth Funfair, a modern funfair. Overnight in Pyongyang.
Day NineÂ Truce Village, DMZ, and Westerners living in DPRK
Drive to Kaesong, capital of Korea in ancient times. Panmunjom, the â€˜truce villageâ€™ in the DMZ where North and South go toe to toe. Local park with Kim Il Sung Statue Lunch in â€˜reunification restaurantâ€™. Concrete Wall â€“ travel deep into the DMZ to a military observation post where you can view the anti-tank barriers erected in South Korea. Return to Pyongyang. Golden Lane Bowling Centre, downtime with locals. Dinner and drinks at Pyongyang Diplomatic Club. Overnight in Pyongyang.
Day Ten Departure from PyongyangÂ Return to Beijing by plane or train.