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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
This is the second in a two part-series on the causes and impact of a recent surge in Chinese tourism to North Korea. Read part one here.
With 2019 having seen what appears to be the highest number of Chinese tourists to visit North Korea ever, NK News on Thursday investigated what is driving the phenomena.
An interest in “going back in time” is a common theme for many, interviewees said, with recent Sino-DPRK geopolitical developments also a key motivator for many.
But while North Korean hosts appear to be encountering a mixture of positives and negatives on a personal level in receiving so many Chinese visitors, how is the influx impacting the DPRK from an economic perspective?
Furthermore, how is the country’s infamously rigid security apparatus dealing with the surge in visitors from a comparatively liberal and geopolitically significant ally? And, above all, what lies ahead?
While some friction points have emerged, the growth in PRC tourism to the DPRK has had a range of both macro and micro impacts on the domestic tourist industry and local Pyongyang economy, those speaking to NK News explained.
Firstly, shops and vendors around the main choke points of Chinese tourists are adapting to their clientele’s new preferences.
“There is a tendency for souvenir shops at various sites to have switched inventory to focus almost entirely on the Chinese market which, generally speaking, consumes different things to western tourists so the range of things that our clients usually would like to buy does get crowded out with things focused on the Chinese market instead,” said Simon Cockerell, the General Manager of Koryo Tours.
Secondly, the quality of accommodation throughout many parts of the country is improving.
“Now that the hotels are full of guests there’s more hotel staff available to assist, facilities remaining opened for most of the morning and evening to cater demand, there’s constant hot water for showers, and electricity has been very stable due to the backup generators working when there’s a power cut,” says Rowan Beard of the Young Pioneer Tours firm.
And this is something creating positives outside of hotels, too.
“I don’t have statistics but I could clearly see that more jobs have been created in the tourism industry,” said a regular Asian visitor to the DPRK who requested anonymity.
“The mushrooming of restaurants, coffee shops, bars & souvenir shops means more chefs, waiters, shop assistants, etc. have been recruited,” they continued, noting, too, that more guides and drivers are employed than ever before.
“There is a tendency for souvenir shops at various sites to have switched inventory to focus almost entirely on the Chinese market”
In addition, Dr. Tereza Novotna, a researcher and regular visitor to Pyongyang, said the influx of Chinese visitors also meant that “tourist facilities have been/are undergoing an upgrade” with improvements possible “even on such minor things like sufficient amount and relatively good quality of toilet paper and soap in toilets.”
The Asian visitor echoed Novotna’s observations, noting they had noticed small improvements at a range of facilities: more powerful hair-dryers, new paving, mosquito nets, powerful showers, and even 24 hour supplies of hot water.
An industry insider, requesting anonymity, also added that many hotels were “making use of the influx” and new revenue to upgrade room keys, renovate lobbies, and even produce new promotional videos.
Even tourist attractions like the Juche Tower have taken advantage of the increased footfall.
“We can now keep the colorful stubs unlike previously when you had to return the tickets when you were leaving the elevator,” the Asian visitor said. “I heard that this is a direct impact of Chinese tourism… the increased revenue meant that (they) could print these colorful ones.”
And the positives have even reached other businesses around the city, they said.
“I met the owner of a restaurant in Pyongyang, who left her job and started her business at the age of 57,” the visitor explained. “It began as a small space with limited staff but now her restaurant is adequately staffed and considered to be one of the posher restaurants in Pyongyang.”
“She said that this year has been particularly good for business.”
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”
Above all, Chinese tourists don’t tend to use the bars in Pyongyang’s myriad hotels.
“It is common even in a hotel booked and filled to capacity for there to be an empty bar,” says Cockerell. “I have many times had bar staff asking me why there aren’t any customers when the hotel lobby is full every morning and evening with arriving / leaving tourists.”
“It is a stereotype,” he said, “but there is some truth to the tendency of Chinese tourists to call it a night early, to eat and drink a bit in their rooms, to not spend time sitting in the hotel bar.”
And as a result of that, “the snack shop in the Yanggakdo even stopped selling instant noodles for a while as they felt the restaurants were losing trade from Chinese visitors preferring something cheap and easy instead of sitting down in a hotel restaurant,” Cockerell added.
And another small problem is that local North Korean guides, who make the majority of their cash in income from tourist tips, are – despite the huge numbers of Chinese visitors – making less money than they would have with Western visitors.
“I’ve been informed Chinese groups don’t tip the Koreans which is what tourism in Korea is based on being a service industry,” said Beard of Young Pioneer Tours.
While it’s true that itineraries for Chinese visitors are extremely limited, as detailed in part one, as a result of the recent surge some famous and ideologically important sites in North Korea have become either highly discouraged for Chinese visitors or seemingly blocked in their entirety.
And in others, changes have been implemented – seemingly to avoid leadership-related mishaps from taking place.
For example, PRC tourist groups can no longer visit the Mansu Hill Grand Monument – where large statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il stand over the city – because it was difficult for them to follow rules and maintain a respectful demeanor, an informed travel source told NK News on condition of anonymity.
“I’ve been informed Chinese groups don’t tip the Koreans”
Meanwhile, at the Sosan Hotel – often full with Chinese tourists – portraits of the leaders had to be removed from a public space, NK News learned from a regular visitor there.
The decision was taken by hotel management after guests repeatedly removed the velvet ropes to pose for selfie-photos next to them, behavior considered inappropriate in a country where the leaders are viewed as sacrosanct.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, Chinese visitors to the nation’s sacred Kumsusan Palace of the Sun – where the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie in state – have been highly restricted.
“You seldom see them at Kumsusan, although I do not know if they are actually banned due to bad behavior,” said an unnamed foreign guide. However, such an explanation “could just be stereotyping (among North Koreans) and latent racism (in DPRK) giving a story legs”.
However, Cockerell says the general absence of Chinese tourists at the mausoleum could also be explained by other reasons: that the facility takes time to tour, mandates a dress code, and has no gift shop at the end.
“I would bet that a lot of (Chinese) visitors are perfectly happy to skip it,” he said.
Likewise, Beard, of Young Pioneer Tours, says that “the Chinese aren’t interested in museums, the Mausoleum or the statues.”
That, above all, might be another possible reason for them not wishing to visit some of the leadership-related sites. “It’s similar to China, so there’s not a big culture shock that western tourists usually experience.”
But beyond sensitivities around some areas related to the leadership and some micro-economic problems, North Korean guides have also begun dealing with other new issues.
“I have heard multiple cases of Chinese tourists leaving the hotels at night”
PROBLEM ONE: UNACCOMPANIED WALKS
One consequence of the huge growth in Chinese tourism – which may simply be down to the general increase in tourist volume and not necessarily due to the fact tourists are Chinese – relates to a range of incidents and problematic behaviors that have begun to occur with increasing frequency.
As any previous visitor to North Korea will know, local guides throughout the country usually forbid visitors from walking freely outside the hotel grounds by themselves. And it’s here where Chinese tourists are regularly falling afoul of the rules, multiple sources indicated.
“I have heard that Chinese tour providers have on occasion been advising customers (incorrectly) that they can walk unguided in Pyongyang,” said the unnamed foreign guide.
Whether or not that is the precise cause of this particular issue, it’s something that is regularly causing friction for those working in the DPRK domestic tourist industry.
“I have heard multiple cases of Chinese tourists leaving the hotels at night which causes a lot of issues for the group and the local guides,” said Beard of Young Pioneer Tours.
“They’re curious and think they can blend into the night but Chinese clothing really makes them stand out to locals and they’re easier to spot than they think.”
Chinese tourists going on solo-missions from the two best-known hotels in the city, the Yanggakdo and the Koryo, have been regularly known to walk as far as Pyongyang railway station and Kim Il Sung square, NK News understands from an informed industry source.
While two foreign journalists were démarched for walking out of the Yanggakdo and taking photos of market activity in 2010 – requiring a written apology in order to solve the situation, in contrast there seems to be little to deter Chinese visitors from doing the same kind of thing.
Part of the problem is that for PRC tourists there is few ways to impose formal punishment for such “bad behavior” in the city, sources said. However, DPRK guides nevertheless do their best to prevent the issue occurring – which can otherwise lead to them suffering the blame from higher-up authorities when things go wrong.
“This has meant that Korean guides need to sit up in the hotel reception to check if they try to leave,” said the unnamed foreign guide about the issue.
But it’s not always feasible to do so, especially in larger or more far-flung facilities.
And as a result, “in some regions in Korea there are heavy fines for those who disobey as the Koreans persuade the Chinese to not leave the hotel,” Beard, of Young Pioneer Tours, said.
PROBLEM TWO: BAD BEHAVIOR
Another set of problems with the large numbers of Chinese tourists relates to disrespect, aggression, and even occasional violence.
On the one hand, three regular visitors to the DPRK independently told NK News that the Chinese visitors there were poorly behaved, pushy, and in some cases even “cringeworthy”.
On the other, the unnamed foreign guide said they would be “hesitant to attribute this to an identikit model of a standard ‘Chinese tourist’ because this would be playing into lazy stereotyping — there are good and bad in all groups.”
But whatever the case, visitors and residents in Pyongyang described incidents that would be of clear concern to any North Korean bureaucrats working with the inbound tourist market.
DPRK tourist authorities simply don’t want to rock the boat when it comes to the industry’s biggest-ever cash-cow in history
“One guide in Sinuiju was aghast and open-mouthed as soon as we saw a Chinese tourist spit right in front of the large murals of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Suk,” the regular Asian tourist to North Korea said.
“Did you see that? This is our dear leaders whom we love so much,” the groups’ guide reportedly said. “They are our big family and he is showing no respect for our family. What kind of a man is he?”
Nevertheless, the North Korean guide “didn’t confront him and only complained angrily to the male guide with her,” the tourist explained.
Violence, too, has also emerged.
“Last year, I invited my guides to dinner in a revolving restaurant,” a European tourist who regularly visits the North told NK News.
“Two men became extra drunk and angry at each other and started a fistfight,” the man continued. “I could almost not believe my eyes.”
“One man fell down and was hurt and had to be carried away, complaining loudly,” he said, adding that “the Koreans were extremely embarrassed about the situation.”
Yet faced with behavioral problems that seldom occur with Western, Japanese or Russian visitors, North Korean guides and authorities repeatedly appear much more tolerant of problematic Chinese visitors.
For example, the Asian tourist told NK News that they observed a Chinese visitor spitting “repeatedly” on a site of major leadership-related significance, but when the North Korean guide took issue with the behavior he was removed from the group in question.
And faced with “cringeworthy” behavior by a group of Chinese men towards North Korean female waitresses, the Asian visitor said, locals felt there was little they could do to put a stop to it.
“The (waitresses) were clearly disgusted but could do nothing about it,” the tourist explained. “It was like the Chinese felt that they owned these people because they were spending lots of money.”
In a nutshell, due to the current trend of warming China-DPRK “friendship” – and following a tragic accident last year which cost the lives of over 30 visiting Chinese tourists – DPRK tourist authorities simply don’t want to rock the boat when it comes to the industry’s biggest-ever cash-cow in history.
Aware that the Chinese tourists are providing the country significant economic resources — NK News estimates up to $175 million in extra revenue in 2019 — one of the industry insiders consequently said that the North Korean guides have been told to effectively tolerate even quite serious transgressions by Chinese visitors.
WHAT LIES AHEAD?
For now, it seems that beyond an expected seasonal decline during Winter, the Chinese tourist industry in North Korea shows no sign of abating.
With major new tourist infrastructure coming online in 2020 – the Wonsan Kalma resort, the Yangdok hot springs, and expected major renovations at Kumgangsan – the diversity of destinations for Chinese visitors will soon increase significantly.
Whether entry port bottleneck issues can be solved soon, however, remains to be seen.
North Korea’s Air Koryo has extremely limited capacity, meaning that for dramatic increases in visitor numbers foreign airlines like Air China would need to increase their schedules significantly, as well as introducing new routes to places like Wonsan’s Kalma International Airport.
Larger or more frequent train routes between Beijing and Pyongyang could be one other option for supporting the increased demand, though hotel capacity inside the DPRK’s key visitor areas will likely remain an issue.
Nevertheless, the DPRK can continue accepting large numbers of short-term / day-trip visitors to its far-flung border regions overland at Sinuiju, Namyang and in Rason.
“The Chinese government can use the sheer number of its tourists as an economic and political tool”
But one significant issue is that all this means an increasing sole-reliance on China, a form of exclusive reliance that the DPRK has traditionally sought to avoid in its international relations.
“I do think that in the main the senior staff of the local travel companies are aware that there is a risk in having such a huge percentage of clients from the same country,” said Simon Cockerell, of Koryo Tours.
“They know that this market is fickle – after all, there have been times when perceptions of a threat of war have been high in China that the market shrinks to almost nothing – and would rather see their portfolio of tourists diversify a little,” he said.
Thus in the event North Korean authorities decide to resume long-range missile and nuclear testing as a result of moribund negotiations, that could prompt China to weaponize its tourist leverage.
“The Chinese government can use the sheer number of its tourists as an economic and political tool, which goes both ways,” said Dr. Novotna, the European researcher.
“It can help the country economically (as now, with the DPRK), but also can be used to harm the country (see boycott after the THAAD in South Korea, travel warnings to Canada about “arbitrary detentions”), etc. ”
For now, however, North Koreans will continue adapting to their Chinese visitors, come what may.
But it seems not all Chinese are going to have the same appreciation for North Korea’s sites of revolutionary importance as the DPRK government might otherwise prefer.
“They see it as a country like China was 50 or more years ago and they portray no sympathy or empathy,” said one regular visitor. “On top of the Juche Tower one Chinese lady told me, ‘so poor, so poor’ and laughed.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News