North Korea to Americans: come on over!

The good news has been confirmed: North Korea is opening its doors to Americans all year long. The Korea International Travel Company revealed the new policy to Asia Pacific Travel Ltd, which is a departure from the standard that had existed since 2005. For the past five years, Americans have only been able to travel to North Korea during the Arirang festival in August and September. Still being considered, however, is whether the five-day limit on travel will be lifted, as well as whether Americans will be able to enter the country by train.

Given the new flexibility, Asia Pacific Travel is planning some new and expanded itineraries (available here). Says Walter L. Keats, CTC, CMP, the company’s president, “Asia Pacific Travel tours for 2010 will offer a different and more extensive mix of long and short-stay study tours, from April through October.” Asia Pacific Travel is the only American tour operator that is recognized officially by the North Korean government with a “Letter of Commission.”

Five rules for traveling to North Korea

I’m told that travel to North Korea is quite safe, as long as you follow the rules (and don’t do anything stupid). You have to realize that, politics aside, you’re entering a country that just does things differently. Of course, the consequences that come with straying can be severe. The trip will be scripted, but you know that going in. Follow the bouncing ball, and you’ll be just fine.

This year, we’ll get a sense of how widely North Korea is willing to open its doors to the line of westerners waiting to enter. In 2009, the window for Arirang-related trips was extended, and there are some indications that this year will bring further liberalization to travel rules for Americans. There’s nothing but opportunity, it seems, for travelers interested in seeing the most remote country on the planet.

Again, travel to North Korea is safe, I’m told, as long as you stick to an established tour group, preferably one that specializes in excursions for westerners. Nonetheless, it’s still a good idea to be hyper-conscious of your environment. Here are five ways to make sure you don’t extend the “Ugly American” stereotype to Pyongyang.

1. Stay on the beaten path
Every travel writer in the world seems intent on delivering super-local, “insidery” insights, encouraging you to really blend. In North Korea, that’s the worst advice you could possibly receive. Want to see something strange? The beaten path will give you plenty.

2. Bring cigarettes

Fuck the Surgeon General! Everything I’ve read suggests that North Korean cigarettes suck. Use packs of Marlboros as tips, and you’ll be treated very well throughout your vacation. Pick up a few cartons at home, preferably in a state that doesn’t tax the hell out of them.

3. Be careful with your camera
There is no shortage of rules about what you can photograph (and how). When in doubt, ask your tour guide. First, you don’t want to run afoul of the regs. More important, though, is that you don’t want to ruin someone else’s day … which could end in a damaged career or worse. This is especially the case if you want to take pictures of North Korean people (which is almost always forbidden).

4. Don’t go political
Be open to having a good time. The official guides are actually quite personable and seem to realize, if subconsciously, that they are in the service industry. Your North Korean tour guides will probably be more accommodating than the flight attendants you encountered en route from the United States. Interact with your guide as guides — not as politicians. These people aren’t setting North Korean policy any more than you’re setting U.S. policy.

5. Interview the tour company
The people taking you into North Korea will make a difference. Stick with a reputable company that has a track record of running tours for westerners. Before you make a purchase, talk to the people who run the company. Get comfortable with them. Don’t be afraid to ask even the strangest questions. The right tour company will not only be open to them, it will answer you from a position of expertise and experience.

North Korea to announce availability to Americans

North Korean officials are thinking about opening the country to American visitors all year long. Though we’d still have to use the existing tour operators and have our options constrained once in the country, we’d at least be able to visit the most isolated country on Earth at virtually any time. Since 2005, Americans have only been able to visit during Arirang — and for only up to five days at a time.

Asia Pacific Travel Ltd has been in touch with Korea International Travel Company, North Korea‘s state-run travel business, which said that a decision on the policy regarding U.S. visitors will be made “around January 25. Asia Pacific Travel is also looking into whether Americans will be able to enter the country by train this year. In the past, only air travel has been open to Americans.

According to Walter Keats, President of Asia Pacific Travel, “If the North Koreans let Americans stay longer, we will be able to offer a different and more extensive mix of long and short-stay study tours.”



[Photo by ninjawil via Flickr]

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.

North Korea extends Arirang again!

Well, it looks like this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity will be offered again this year. That’s what happens, though, when you’re dealing with Pyongyang – you never know what to expect. The latest news is that the Arirang Mass Games festival has been extended from the end of September to October 17, 2009, giving Koryo Tours time to schedule one more outing for western visitors.

Like the last trip offered, this short run through the most isolated country on the planet will last three days and includes flights to and from Beijing, all meals and hotel stays, transportation, entry fees, guide services and just about everything else (though you are encouraged to bring gifts for your hosts). You’ll also have two opportunities to see the Arirang spectacle, along with the usual North Korean sights: Juche Tower, Pyongyang Metro, Kim Il Sung Square and others.

The trip comes at a price of €850 (around $1,100), though discounts area available for students, children and groups of three or more booking together. Of course, the dates aren’t flexible – this is North Korea, after all. The trip runs from October 15 to 17, and the booking deadline is October 3. Americans are welcome on this trip.

So, if you saw the last deal from Koryo Tours and weren’t sure, you have another shot at visiting this unusual destination.

Not sure what Arirang is? Check out the video after the jump.