She sent Dennis Rodman to North Korea

By Arnie Weissmann
Arnie WeissmannIt was painful to watch flamboyant former basketball player Dennis Rodman attempt to justify to George Stephanopoulos on ABC's "This Week" his visit to North Korea and his courtside camaraderie with that country's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.

Twice painful to me, as I'm a native Chicagoan and Bulls fan and also a fellow traveler -- note lowercase "F" and "T" -- to North Korea.

My trip preceded Rodman's by 22 years, and I do not share his belief that Kim is "a great guy." But I do share with Rodman a belief that a visit to Pyongyang is nothing for which to apologize. In fact, I'd encourage Americans to consider a vacation in North Korea

While there is always the possibility that a visitor will be naive enough to simply believe everything a North Korean tour escort says about history, politics and living conditions in that nation, it's much more likely that Westerners interested in a visit have not been living in an information vacuum.

And they will leave the country with an even more informed view of life in a state where the government has a profound degree of control over its citizens.

The year I went, only six visas were issued to Americans. The government clearly had ambiguous feelings about tourists, especially from America.

My attempts to have genuine interactions with everyday citizens became a bit of a game between my handler and me. I made suggestions: I wanted to go to a movie. I wanted to eat in a restaurant (all meals were scheduled in hotels).

I could watch movies on my TV at the hotel, he replied. At one point, he seemed to tease me: He said we were going to a restaurant, but as soon as we entered, he led me to a private room.

But a lot can change in 22 years, so I contacted Andrea Lee of Uri Tours to get an update about similar visits today. She had arranged the ticketing and visa services for Rodman and also for Google CEO Eric Schmidt when he visited the country in January.

Lee started her business in 2006 after having visited the country a few years earlier. She had been a corporate lawyer in Manhattan without travel industry experience or contacts in North Korea, but by persistently "making the case" to North Korean officials, she is today the exclusive North American agent for state-run Air Koryo and provides visa and consulting services from her office in Edgewater, N.J.

Lee, who speaks Korean, says she might still get resistance for some requests for interaction between her groups and typical North Koreans, but she was recently able to bring a group to a public roller rink for skating and to a festival so crowded that there was no way to keep the group together.

She believes government attitudes toward tourism are in transition.

"The government is running tourism, and they want to put their best foot forward," she said. "They'll take us places they're most proud of, and within that framework, there's a lot more flexibility now."

There's no quota for the number of visas issued to Americans, and her escorts have told her they find American visitors culturally more similar to themselves than tourists from other countries.

To my surprise, she also said that cellphone service is available and that, unlike in China, visitors have free access to social media sites.

Following Rodman's visit, Lee said there has been a strong uptick in interest in visiting North Korea. But she also said she faces criticism "all the time, every day. There's no way around it."

There will always be negatives and positives, she said, but Lee believes strongly that "cultural exchanges are important. Politics obviously plays a big part, but meeting everyday people is very significant. We see commonalities: We all have families and hobbies. And both sides can be very engaged in dialogues. A visit can be a really moving experience, both for Westerners and locals."

As Lee and executives at Asia Pacific Travel, Remote Lands and other companies will affirm, tour operators can market and visit destinations that present fewer challenges than North Korea. But I've found that those who choose to work in countries that have inherent difficulties are often motivated by an underlying passion for something more than just enabling vacations (or basketball exhibitions). And that additional level of passion almost always guarantees a fascinating experience.

Email Arnie Weissmann at aweissmann@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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