North Korea is perhaps the world's most reclusive country, but in part because of its isolation and its complicated history, it is also a fascinating travel destination.
It's unlikely that there is any Westerner who has visited North Korea more than British-born, Beijing-based Nick Bonner, who has traveled there almost every month for the past 17 years. In 1993, Bonner was appointed as a travel specialist by the Korea International Travel Co., a government agency, enabling him to establish Koryo Tours (www.koryogroup.com), which takes more than half of the Westerners visiting North Korea into the country. (Click here to view a slideshow of some of North Korea's sites.) Travel Weekly: What are the travel opportunities for Americans interested in visiting North Korea?
Nick Bonner: In 2010, the restrictions on U.S. citizens visiting North Korea on tourism visas were lifted. Prior to this, access was only allowed for the Arirang Mass Games from August to October, and itineraries were limited. Now there are many more destinations, such as Mount Paekdu, the East Coast and an overnight stay in Kaesong on the DMZ.
It is still not possible for U.S. citizens to take the train out of the country, but we hope that restriction will be lifted soon. In total, we estimate that no more than 3,000 U.S. tourists have visited since the end of hostilities in 1953.
TW: Are tourists allowed to wander around on their own?
Bonner: No, tourists have to travel with their guides at all times outside the hotel. It sounds strange to some people, but it is all part of the attraction, like travel to Eastern Europe in the old days.
And please note the guides are guides: They are trained at the Tourism College or the Foreign Language University. I realize people love the idea that they are traveling with "guards" who are watching their every move, but they are in fact simply travel guides.
TW: How do you respond to people who say traveling to North Korea props up a regime that suppresses its people?
Bonner: We believe that the tourist industry in North Korea should be encouraged. Tourism allows the Koreans to develop an understanding of the West. ... Tourism provides money brought in through legal channels. It requires the ... government to commit to a peaceful structure that interacts with the outside world.
We have witnessed firsthand the impact of cultural exchanges, and from experience have seen that they are a significant tool for engagement with North Korea on a political and moral level, and are currently underutilized. We accept that tourism and cultural exchanges can in a small way be used as propaganda. While engagement with North Korea is very strictly controlled, anything that is allowed has a significant impact.