Spring Airlines, a budget flight operator based out of Shanghai Pudong airport, is believed to be in the process of opening a new route from Shanghai to Pyongyang. From February 2016 it could offer as many as four flights per week – which would make it the third player in the North Korean aviation market (the others being state monolith Air Koryo, which runs scheduled flights from Beijing, Shenyang and Vladivostok, and Air China which runs two per week from Beijing).
Now, those of us in the travel industry have learned take such grand announcements with a large pinch of salt. All too often, after the fanfare has died down, the plans amount to nothing. But in this case, we really have to hope this comes to pass – North Korea has pretty much reached capacity for tourism. Without new routes into the country, tourism in the DPRK is likely to stagnate.
This year, two genuinely momentous occasions for the aviation industry in North Korea occurred: First, the Pyongyang Sunan International Airport was transformed into a modern international airport and, second, North Korea opened its second international airport at Wonsan. The hope is that this new hub will service that other grand tourism project, the Masik Ski Resort.
Now, while expanding airport capacity is something to be applauded, it doesn’t count for much unless there are more more planes to make use of them. Air Koryo is, it seems, operating at full capacity and so, in effect, is turning away customers.
The first thing to consider with regards to the expansion is the Air Koryo fleet, which at present consists of only four planes considered by international and Chinese aviation standards as fit to fly. Its main aircraft – the ones deemed suitable for travel to, for example, the EU – are two Tupolev Tu-204 with seating for 16 in business class and 150 in economy. It also has two Antanov An-148s, each with seating for up to 70 passengers, thus (including business class seats) it has a total capacity of 472 passengers on any given day. While this may not sound like a great deal, it’s generally enough to cover day to day volume; the problems arise during major celebrations and anniversaries, when it is woefully inadequate.
This leads to the second part of the problem. Air Koryo – despite being the state-owned carrier of the last fully communist country on earth – is run as a profit-making enterprise. So, if a flight has 90 people booked, it’s cheaper for Air Koryo to run the the smaller 70-seat plane – leaving 20 people high and dry – than to run the 166-seater below its capacity. This leads to the farcical situation of North Korean authorities encouraging foreign travel agencies to avoid booking people onto flights, in case Air Koryo doesn’t have the numbers to run a bigger plane or, conversely, encouraging foreign agents to conjure up extra travelers in the hope of forcing the airline to run a Tupolev. Unfortunately, while the upper levels of the state are enthusiastic about increasing tourism, the fact is that Air Koryo and those in charge of North Korean tourism don’t work together as you’d expect in a country where everything is owned by the state.
the fact is that Air Koryo and those in charge of North Korean tourism don’t work together as you’d expect in a country where everything is owned by the state
Another issue that has also reared its ugly head more than once also boils down to money, and North Korean tourism being a victim of its own success. During the busy season it’s common for Chinese travel agents to charter whole planes to bring in groups from cities such as Shanghai or Dalian, and at a charter rate – meaning Air Koryo doesn’t need to worry about how many people actually fly. Now while this is great news economically for North Korea, it doesn’t change the fact that there are only four planes available for international flights. If you let three out on a charter it might be good for short-term balance sheets, but for tourism as whole, it’s is not a sustainable strategy long-term.
The last issue with regards to increasing tourism via air travel is that of competition, or lack thereof. The only other airline to run flights to the DPRK is the state-owned Air China. Their current schedule consists of two overpriced flights (at awkward times of the day) per week, seemingly catering to Chinese businessmen and officials. These flights are not a very useful option for those in the tourist industry. As in any industry competition, and a lack of monopoly will promote innovation and a better deal for the consumer.
It’s with this in mind that we take the impending move by Spring Airlines extremely seriously – perhaps more out of hope than expectation – because if the deal does fail to materialize, DPRK tourism may face a drawn-out period of stagnation. One of the hardest parts of our job is to dispel the many myths about tourism in the DPRK and to convince people that it is a viable tourist option, but with the current situation meaning a de facto finite number of places available to tourists the sad fact is that if we are forced to turn people away at the door they will not come back later, but simply take their tourist dollars elsewhere.