Five major changes to North Korean tourism in 2009

Fewer than 1,500 Americans have been to North Korea on vacation, according to Koryo Tours, making it one of the truly remote destinations in a world that’s becoming increasingly interconnected. So, if you’re looking for an unusual stamp in your passport or bragging rights when the conversation turns to “most unusual destination,” a trip above the DMZ remains one of the top alternatives.

If you have set expectations of what a trip to North Korea entails, prepare to have them shattered. Sure, they tend to include the basics that you’ve seen in countless travelogues and news stories, but new sites do open up. Look for a few surprises in 2010, though as one would expect, there are no guarantees.

Below, look for five ways that tourism has changed in North Korea this year. Some of them will surprise you.


1. Cell phones, cell phones everywhere
Cell phone use is on the rise in North Korea, according to Koryo Tours, which says, “tens of thousands of units have been sold to local residents in the past 12 months.” But, if you’re heading over to Pyongyang this year, you won’t be among the people chatting away. Visitors still aren’t allowed to take their own phones into the country.

2. Foreign grub is now on the menu
Pyongyang is now home to two new pizza joints and a fast food burger place. These come on top of a fried chicken restaurant that opened in 2008.

3. Americans played soccer
A match between the Beijing Chaoyang Park Rangers and a local DPRK club was the first amateur contest in which Americans participated.

4. The movies found romance
Filmmaker (and tour guide) Nick Bonner is trying something new. Following three documentaries on North Korean life and culture (one of which involved American defectors), he’s now working on a romantic comedy. When the film comes out, you may be able to remember visiting some of what you see in the background (just a guess — few details have been released).

5. Short tours were available
Koryo Tours ran a series of short tours to Pyongyang for Arirang this year, which made the destination more accessible to westerners gripped by a global financial crisis.

So, if you’re thinking about a return trip, the scene might look a little different in Pyongyang this time around. Whether you’re going to dig into some kimchi or some pizza and beer, you’ll find something exciting in this corner of the world. Keep an eye on Arirang in September; hopefully Koryo Tours will repeat the deals it ran this year!

If you’re worried about your safety, don’t. You could have a considerable amount of trouble if you enter North Korea illegally, but according to Koryo Tours, organized tours are quite safe, and the company hasn’t had any problems.