About the Author
View more articles by Chad O'Carroll
Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
This is the first in a two part-series on the causes and impact of a recent surge in Chinese tourism to North Korea. You can read part two here.
After what devolved into a rapidly worsening relationship in 2017, the five summits conducted by Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un since 2018 have improved China-North Korea relations to unprecedented contemporary levels.
Resulting in increasing high-level political exchanges, progress on major bilateral infrastructure projects and major unexplained spikes in China-DPRK trade data, relations are better than they’ve ever been, at least under Kim Jong Un’s leadership.
It’s also no secret that Chinese tourism in North Korea has exploded over the past 18 months. With NK News research estimating conservatively that around 350,000 Chinese visitors will have visited the DPRK in 2019 alone – figures calculated from confidential source inputs – North Korean tourist authorities have likely scored a huge financial windfall.
Representing the highest number of Chinese tourists to have visited North Korea in a single year to date, on the conservative estimate that each person would have spent approximately $500 on their trip, these visitor numbers could have generated some $175 million in extra revenue in 2019.
That’s not an insignificant number: the Brussels-based International Crisis Group estimated in June that the controversial Kaesong Industrial Complex would have netted Pyongyang about $120 million a year. Yet North Korea’s tourism industry has managed to generate significantly more cash than that – and all without a single change to the global sanctions regime.
Of course, such numbers are not enough to solve the DPRK’s economic troubles, but they certainly help mitigate some of the costs of sanctions. As a result, the Chinese tourist influx has geopolitical significance.
What, then, is motivating so many Chinese to go to North Korea this year? And what kind of impact does the growing Chinese tourist interest – both good and bad – create?
WHY DO CHINESE GO?
After Xi Jinping met Kim Jong Un in Dalian last year – the leaders’ third meeting of 2018 – Chinese tourism suddenly spiked, creating massive strain on travel vectors in and out of North Korea.
It was as if someone pressed a button in Beijing last June and unleashed a massive hose-pipe of visitors, numbers which had otherwise been on a steady decline since the heady days of 2012, when official PRC data indicated that 237,000 Chinese visited the DPRK – the last official datapoint released by China.
While some reports since suggested that Beijing may be forcing large droves of Chinese visitors – some from local government – to go to North Korea as a form of unofficial economic aid, industry insiders and regular visitors told NK News they think the surge is organic, facilitated by the geopolitical warming between the two countries.
So why are so many Chinese going to the North right now?
“As far as I know, it’s mostly sentimental, a feeling of going back in time,” said a European who travels to North Korea at least once a year. “My younger Chinese friends say they would never visit North Korea for that reason alone – however, the middle aged and older seem to enjoy this experience.”
“There is a tendency for Mainland tourists to assume that the DPRK is simply China from 40 years ago”
One Western tour operator agreed.
“The demographic of Chinese tourists visiting Pyongyang are between the age of 45 to 60 and they don’t travel alone, always with numerous friends or family by their side and included into a group of 45 in total,” said Rowan Beard, a guide with the Young Pioneer Tours company.
And why? “One of the most common ones is they’ve learned about the Korean War so much when they were back in school as well as the country being mysterious even to the Chinese and they want to learn more about their neighbor.”
Simon Cockerell, General Manager of Koryo Tours, agreed that an interest in the past was a key factor for many.
“I don’t want to speak for all Chinese any more than I would for all Koreans, but there is a tendency for Mainland tourists to assume that the DPRK is simply China from 40 years ago,” he said.
“I have overheard many conversations in North Korea which were basically Chinese tourists telling their guide that it is just like how they used to live, and also the kind of ‘When you open up you can be like us’ argument too,” he said.
Furthermore, recent geopolitical development may have played an important role.
“It appears that Xi Jinping’s visit (to Pyongyang) and the Mass Games is the crowd puller,” said one Asian tourist on condition of anonymity.
“For them, Xi has changed the game. They were very proud of how the DPRK hosted Xi and the bilateral boost in friendship.”
Beyond that, the tourist said, a lack of gambling rules seems to be attractive for some.
“Those I met outside the Yanggakdo casino also said that they really enjoyed the Mass Games – one said like ‘Olympics [were in] Beijing but I am from Shandong and so only saw that on TV.’”
“Another cheekily chirped, ‘also, we like going to casinos, China no casinos.’”
WHAT DO NORTH KOREANS THINK?
Given only about 4,000-5,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year, the huge spike in Chinese numbers since 2018 has naturally led to huge changes within the DPRK’s national tourism industry.
Just two years ago, North Koreans working on the China tourist portfolio were encountering regular hurdles to being allowed to even receive inbound PRC visitors.
Air China suspended operations in the DPRK for an unprecedented six months between 2017-2018, while Chinese authorities ordered at least two temporary bans on PRC visitors in the same period – one in November 2017, one in April 2018.
But now, with up to 2,000 Chinese arriving a day during peak season, according to NK News calculations based on source data from around the country, domestic state tourism companies are being stretched in ways they have never encountered.
“I think the guides find it very challenging to discipline the Chinese”
A first order consequence was that in June 2019 a measure was introduced to limit the number of Chinese visitors to just a thousand a day. However, tourist industry sources told NK News that this limit is only focused on Pyongyang, meaning Chinese entering for shorter trips at places like Sinuiju, Namyang, and Rason do not face those quotas.
Another consequence has been a need to find large numbers of capable hosts.
“There are many English language speaking tour guides I know who have been through crash courses in Chinese to be able to guide (or at least co-guide) mainland groups,” said Simon Cockerell.
And what do local guides think about their new guests?
“Chinese groups are typically large and hence more difficult to control for the local guides,” said one foreign guide working in North Korea, who asked to remain anonymous. “Some local guides have expressed disappointment with the lack of interest in their explanations at tourist sites.”
The Asian tourist agreed: “I think the guides find it very challenging to discipline the Chinese.”
“One guide in Pyongyang told me, ‘Today I am with all of you and I speak softly and I am very kind – but from tomorrow, I have a new tour and they are Chinese, (so) I have to change my character and become harsh and very strict.'”
“’I have to become a different person for the next four days.’”
Dr. Tereza Novotna, a regular visitor to the DPRK and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the Free University Berlin, said it was her impression that local tourism personnel viewed the Chinese visitors as “almost a necessary evil.”
“The guides seemed quite exhausted by dealing with the Chinese groups,” she said.
Cockerell said that the guides he knew were in “two minds” about the increased Chinese tourist volume.
“One is that this is their job and duty to welcome visitors, they have a decent job, they trained for it and it is a bit of an honor for many to be the front line in introducing their country to tourists,” he said.
“However the sheer numbers of mainland Chinese tourists can be a bit overwhelming and also there are times when large numbers of tourists are concentrated in a certain place that the noise levels and just general rowdiness – in comparison with the North Koreans, who are generally somewhat quieter and are very orderly usually – can be a bit overwhelming.”
Beard, of Young Pioneer Tours, agreed.
“It’s been quite exhausting for local guides to handle the new increase of Chinese tourists,” he explained. “The Chinese speaking guides are working back to back with little time off.”
“(And) English-speaking local guides are needing to work with Chinese groups so they can be the second guide available even though they can’t communicate with the group at all.”
Compared to Western visitors – who often go to North Korea to get off the beaten track and visit a diverse range of far-flung locations throughout the country – the large numbers of Chinese tend to stick to a well-worn and highly-limited itinerary.
Cockerell, the General Manager of Koryo Tours, said that “Chinese groups also almost all follow exactly the same itinerary; arrive by train, overnight in Pyongyang, city tour, overnight in Pyongyang, drive to Kaesong (DMZ, Koryo Museum, Ginseng Shop, lunch), back to Pyongyang, overnight, leave by train.
“This is not mandated, it is just what the market demands,” he said.
But even among the places they do visit, “the Chinese tourists generally don’t seem to have a deep interest in full explanations at many sites.”
At the Party Foundation Monument, for example, he said it is normal that European visitors to “arrive, walk to the monument itself, have an explanation, take photos, mill around a bit, visit the art exhibition behind, and then leave.”
“The DMZ now sees an average of 800 Chinese tourists per day”
In contrast, “Chinese groups almost always arrive, stand in the car park, have a very brief explanation from their guide, take photos and then drive off.”
But as a result of the sheer volume of high-frequency visits to North Korea’s key-sites, one of the corresponding ramifications has been a serious strain on tourism infrastructure.
“The Juche tower for the panoramic view of Pyongyang city, Kim Il Sung Square and the DMZ,” are all key chokepoints now, says Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours. “The DMZ now sees an average of 800 Chinese tourists per day.”
In extreme cases, NK News has even heard from industry sources of times when as many as 2000 Chinese have arrived at the DMZ in a single day, putting major strain on what’s supposed to be a serious military facility.
Naturally, this means that “tourist areas feel crowded,” an unnamed Western guide explained, meaning agencies “sometimes have to factor in ‘getting ahead of the Chinese groups’ into scheduling decisions.”
As a result, the DMZ is a key site where this has led to changes in how Western groups approach travel.
“Chinese tour groups tend to leave the hotels earlier in the mornings which means that for Panmunjom, for example, if you drive down from Pyongyang in the morning rather than staying over in Kaesong, you need to leave really early, or risk a queue of buses and a long wait,” the Western guide said.
TRAVEL AND ACCOMMODATION
Unsurprisingly, getting in and out of North Korea has itself also become a growing hurdle for some.
“This recent interest of mass groups of Chinese tourists flocking to Pyongyang has been a wake-up call for North Korea but they’re limited with how they can respond due to the current infrastructure in place,” said Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours.
“With only a few flights available during the week and one train in and out of Pyongyang from China, these tickets are quickly sold months in advance leaving us with less room to accept bookings for tourists on our tours.”
Noting it was “previously … quite easy to book anyone wanting to travel to North Korea within a weeks’ notice,” he said “now we need at least a few weeks’ notice to ensure there is a way for the tourist to enter and exit North Korea.”
Cockerell of Koryo Tours concurred: “For our company, the main issues caused by the huge (and seemingly sustained) increase in Chinese tourists has been pressure on train tickets to enter and exit Pyongyang.”
State airline Air Koryo has, however, in the past 18 months put on a range of new charter and scheduled services to complement its traditional routes into China. However, many of these flights are not often available for external booking.
Furthermore, with thousands of Chinese in the country at any one time, hotel availability has become strained.
“The flexibility we had with hotels previously has also disappeared,” says Beard. “We could arrange last-minute reservations for rooms but now the hotels in the capital and outside in rural towns are totally full.”
And there are hotels, such as the Sosan, “which are perpetually full to capacity with tourists now which puts a strain on them when things need to be repaired, tidied up, etc,” says Cockerell.
Yet hotels have been annoyed by how little time Chinese tourists spend using facilities like bars and restaurants.
“The hotels are annoyed how the Chinese don’t spent as much money at the hotels than they do at the gift stores,” says Beard. “I have had staff complain to me that Chinese bring their own tea, snacks, beverages from China and never splurge at the hotels.”
Tomorrow: NK News explores the economic impacts of Chinese tourism to the DPRK, how Chinese visitors have posed new problems for Pyongyang security officials, and what could lie ahead.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News