Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;…………
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
Thus begins Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a landmark in early (late 14th century) English literature and a paean to tourism (hint: read aloud or follow the link for a modern version). Tourism, in the form of pilgrimages to a place considered holy, has a long history stretching back thousands of years, and continues to be important today; the most prominent example being the annual Hadj when some 2 million Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca. It was the Greeks who brought sport into the mix, along with a mechanism for promoting peace, with the Olympics. Chaucer’s pilgrims seem to represent a turning point, a move from the religious to the secular; they appear to regard the journey to Canterbury as an veiled excuse for what we might regard as some of the attributes of modern tourism; going to new places, meeting new people, swapping stories, and with the Wife of Bath, ruminations on sex. Enjoyment rather than purification of the soul.
Tourism to North Korea manifests these characteristics. For the first few decades it was mainly a matter of political pilgrimage, and there are still elements of that today. The agreements between Kim Dae-jung and Kim Jong Il which opened up Kumgangsan to southern tourists marked a transitional period. The incentive for both governments was political, and for South Koreans going to Kumgangsan had a quasi-religious quality, celebrating the beauty of the Korean Peninsula with a touch of shamanistic significance of place. However, tours to Kumgangsan were also a big money spinner for the tourism industry in the North and, for those involved, also in the South. Today, as exemplified by the new terminal at Sunan airport, and the Masikryong Ski Resort, the focus is commercial. Which leads to various questions, principally what are the implications of this and will it be a business success?
As usual with North Korea, there is a shortage of quality information on the tourism industry. The Koreans themselves have a habit of producing articles full of wishful thinking and little substance. The Western press offers the usual mishmash of clichés. Despite being a member of the World Tourism Organization since 1987 North Korea does not appear to supply it with statistics
However, positioning the question within the international context, using a simple framework of positive and negative factors, with a glance at statistics, does permit some informed conjecture.
LURE OF THE TOURIST DOLLAR
Tourism is a huge global industry. It is, to developing countries, the services equivalent of textiles in manufacturing, the traditional first route out of poverty into world markets. However, unlike textiles, it offers continuing economic attractions even to the most highly developed countries. Locals may moan about being swamped by foreign tourists, but governments welcome them. This spread is shown by the world’s top four tourism destinations – France, the United States, Spain and China. Tourism has been fueled by a rise in disposable incomes and in leisure time – either in holidays for the working – or an elongated retirement period for the “silver market” – the growing cohort of retired people. Changes in technology, mainly the introduction of jets in the 1960s, have dramatically lowered the cost of travel, and advances in information and communications technology (ICT) have greatly facilitated its management. Tourism is measured by arrivals and the more important, but complex, metric of receipts. Counting the number of foreigners who arrive at an airport is simple but calculating how much they have spent by the time they leave (and to which countries the revenues have gone) is another matter. Many countries construct a Tourism Satellite Account in an attempt to measure that.
In the bad old days it was usually only the very affluent who traveled abroad, even from the richest countries. And when it was ordinary people it was usually men, in military uniform. Too much of that still exists today, of course, but now is greatly overshadowed by peaceful travel. International arrivals surged from 25 million in 1950 to 1.133 billion in 2014. More to the point, it is predicted that this will reach 1.8 billion in 2030. Tourism, according to the World Tourism Organization, accounts for 9 percent of GDP, 1 in 11 jobs, $1.5 trillion in exports, or 6 percent of the world’s total. Clearly getting a slice of that pie is very attractive. Moreover North Korea is geographically well-positioned because the largest source of outbound tourism is now China and that is still growing extremely fast, overseas expenditure increasing 27 percent in 2014 to $165 billion, and industry sources predict continued robust growth. In addition, North Korea has considerable potential tourism including unspoilt beaches and especially mountains – which offer cross-seasonal advantages, with seasonal emphasis; Kumgangsan from spring through to autumn and Masikryong for winter sports.
Whilst tourism does require investment in the local infrastructure, such as airports and hotels, and in human resources, its demands are relatively modest. As Kim Sang Hak, a North Korean economist, put it: ‘“Tourism can produce a lot of profit relative to the investment required, so that’s why our country is putting priority on it.” Nevertheless North Korea has to bear an additional burden imposed by U.S.-led sanctions, a case in point being the chairlifts which a Swiss manufacturer was barred from supplying. The Koreans had to acquire inferior equipment from China. However, with Beijing winning the 2020 Winter Olympics everything connected with winter sports in mainland Northeast Asia is on the threshold of rapid transformation. Winter sports are new to China but have been growing fast in recent years. Chinese media have talked of “of expanding the appeal of winter sports to the 300 million people who live in north China” with amongst other things, special programs in schools. No doubt a bit of hype to bolster the Olympics bid, but even a small part of the huge markets that China develops is a meal for small countries such as North Korea.
TOURISM AND FOREIGN POLICY
Some 15 years ago I wrote a set of papers about the Kumgangsan project, then fairly new. I noted the beginning of the Chinese tourism tsunami, but also commented:
Pyongyang has not yet moved far enough away from the old, self-defeating approach to tourism which focused on visitors which would eulogize the leadership. It needs to make a firm policy decision that it wants to attract manageable numbers of international tourists, and then analyze rationally how it might achieve that.
That decision was taken and now the focus is on skiers and bikers rather than pilgrims but it remains unclear how viable the strategy will be. The positive attributes of inbound tourism are evident, but there are formidable disadvantages. It is vulnerable to diseases such as MERS, terrorism attacks, natural disasters and, of particular relevance to North Korea, political interference.
The United States for many years prohibited its citizens from going there and for most of its history so has South Korea. This prohibition was lifted in 1998 by Kim Dae-jung when the Kumgangsan tours were started but re-established by Lee Myung-bak in 2008 and continued by Park Geun-hye. But politics extend beyond administrative controls into the realm of propaganda and soft power. Country image is particularly important for tourism and this extends from general attitudes, including judgments about morality and safety, through to perceptions about the attractiveness, cost and functionality of specific destinations, events, and facilities.
The problem for North Korea is that it has little control over these images, especially the general ones. Opinions about the physical and social attributes of a specific tourism object, such as Kumgangsan, Masikryong or the Sunan terminal can be conveyed through photographs and reports from preceding tourists on sites such as TripAdvisor and the relationship to reality might be reasonably close. But amorphous subjects such as human rights, nuclear weapons and belligerence are another matter. Even something as mundane and statistically describable as personal safety can suffer from a very distorted portrayal. Tourism academics Buda and Shim consider North Korea a prime example of a destination attracting tourists “desiring the dark” who go for a voyeuristic experience of darkness and danger in a country which “seems to be in a status of continuous socio-political turmoil.” They obviously don’t read NK News or 38 North. In fact, despite the dire warnings of the State Department, for ordinary, prudent tourists North Korea must be one of the safest places in the world.
Whatever North Korea’s success in attracting commercial tourists and FDI, the strategy does indicate a commitment to peace. Significantly, and symbolically, the construction of the tourism infrastructure has been carried out by the army – a manifestation of swords into ploughshares. And we might just wonder why the U.S. and South Korean governments, instead of facilitating this do their best to hinder it.
Image: Masikryong North Korea Ski Resort by uritours on 2014-01-28 21:35:38
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