Dylan Harris runs Lupine Travel, a U.K.-based travel agency offering tours of geopolitical hot spots like Iran, Chernobyl and Dennis Rodman’s new favorite vacation destination, North Korea. Although the U.S. government has placed economic sanctions on the isolated totalitarian state because of its nuclear program — and issued warnings for those traveling to the country — Americans are not prohibited from traveling to North Korea.
We spoke to Harris about growing interest in travel to North Korea and what visitors can expect.
Harris says Lupine’s bookings to North Korea doubled in 2012 to around 600, about half from Asia and the rest from the U.S., the E.U. and Australia. His company’s four-day tours of North Korea cost from $780 to $1,100, depending on the time of year, not including airfare to Asia. (Americans must also pay an additional $430 for the flight from China because they’re barred from entering North Korea by train.)
When arranging a tour, Harris’ first step is applying for visas, a process that usually takes about three weeks and seems primarily focused on establishing that no one in the group is a journalist — which is the only reason an application has ever been rejected, Harris says.
Next, he proposes an itinerary to the government travel agency, and its officials tell him which places the tour group will be allowed to visit. “North Korea is a bit different because we can’t actually book anything,” says Harris.
As a result, virtually every trip features the same sites, including the towering statues of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il (at the feet of which visitors are asked to present flowers), the heavily fortified demilitarized zone that lies between North and South Korea and the North Korea Peace Museum, a down-the-rabbit-hole history lesson for Americans, who are portrayed as oppressors and the clear-cut losers not only of the Korean War, but also of the remaining half of the 20th century, which was “won” by North Korea’s socialist “miracle.”
One of the most bizarre regular stops is the International Friendship Exhibition, which displays gifts that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il have received from world leaders, highlighted by a bulletproof car from Joseph Stalin and a cocktail tray fixed in the arms of a stuffed crocodile from the President of Ecuador.
The North Korean government does seem to be getting more flexible about itineraries, according to Harris. When he used to ask for stops beyond the Kim Il Sung’s Greatest Hits Tour, the response would be a flat “no.” Recently, he was able to add a visit to a university and a golf outing. And for the next trip, Lupine travelers will spend an evening in a Pyongyang bar drinking North Korea’s well-regarded Taedonggang beer with the locals — a request that had puzzled the North Korean tour agency. “They don’t understand why you’d want to come over and do a normal thing like sit in a bar,” Harris says. “If you suggest that, they’ll say, ‘We’ve got big statues you can see.’”
All North Korean tour groups are accompanied by government-assigned guides who speak fluent English, have excellent manners and appear, Harris says, to believe that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il are the most impressive father-and-son combo since the Father and Son. For a Lupine trip last year, the 20-something guides were Kim and Lee, who surprised the group with karaoke sessions on the tour bus. Kim sang Dion’s classic “The Wanderer,” and Lee belted out “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie Titanic.
Harris says the guides have toned down their propaganda speeches since his first visit in 2007, perhaps an indication that the government is becoming more open to tourism. “It was constant, nonstop speaking about Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il,” he says. “They still do it now but they have reined it in a little bit. I don’t know whether it’s because they’ve been told to, because it does get really infuriating after a few days.”
North Korea has also loosened restrictions on cell phones. Beginning March 1, visitors can carry phones and buy SIM cards to access the Internet. Previously, travelers had to check their phones at the airport and claim them as they left the country.
Harris sees North Korea as the future of Lupine Travel, but worries the country will lose some of its mystery and allure as more and more outsiders are allowed a glimpse. “Obviously, I want the place to open up, but I don’t know if it will have the same attraction,” he says. “The main reason people want to go there is that they don’t know what to expect. Once it does open up, it’s just like anywhere else.”
Walker is a senior editor at Golf Magazine