More than a few eyes in the cruise industry are now focused on the development of new business in Asia and the Pacific Basin. Costa was the first Western line to recognize that market's potential, placing a ship in China in 2006. They've invested more than 50 million euros (about $64 million) in the Asia market, and they will make more than 100 calls in Chinese ports this year.
Royal Caribbean has seen huge growth in the China market since placing the Legend of the Seas there in 2008. Think about it: 75% of their passengers boarding in Tianjin and Shanghai are Chinese. What an extraordinary opportunity for Americans to experience a vacation on which they can actually get up close and personal with Chinese citizens. I might start requiring my clients to do a cruise like that before I agree to send them anywhere else.
Look at it from the cruise line's perspective. The Asia-Pacific region has more than 3.5 billion potential cruisers. So cruise lines are in a mad rush to set up China-based sales offices and to find the best way to say, "It's different out here" in Mandarin.
The problem is that all the most intelligent executives in the cruise industry are focused on the potential of cruising in China. But no one is paying attention to the growth of a new discount cruise line in Asia that threatens to put them all out of business.
It turns out that North Korea is entering the cruise business. Understandably, some might not take this competition seriously. After all, North Korea's capital, Pyongyang, is home to the Ryugyong Hotel, described by Esquire Magazine as "the worst building in the history of mankind." I took that remark to mean that the author didn't care for the architecture.
We'll get to North Korea's cruise ship in a minute, but the good news is that it was not designed by the same team that built the 105-story hotel, a property so hideous and unsafe that it has not hosted a single guest in two decades. You might be able to Google this 3,000-room monstrosity if you are lucky enough to find an unofficial photo of the capital in which the hotel has not been airbrushed out. North Korea takes its investments in tourism seriously: The government poured 2% of its entire gross domestic product into the building widely known as the Hotel of Doom.
So with this background, what could we expect from a new North Korean cruise line?
In early November, 500 Chinese tourists, travel agents and North Korean tourism executives boarded the ship known as Mangyongbong in the North Korean port of Rason for a leisurely cruise down the east coast of the country, disembarking in Kumgang. To board this vessel, you simply work with the proper travel agency in China, get yourself to the Chinese city of Yanji and then do a three-hour drive to Rason. But bring a cushion, because the roads are filled with large holes and small craters.
The Mount Kumgany region, the highlight of the itinerary, is actually quite beautiful. It was supposed to be a resort area co-developed by South and North Korea, accepting tourists from both countries. Unfortunately, this brief attempt at harmony sort of fell apart when North Korean guards started shooting South Korean tourists.
Now North Korea has a new partner in the Chinese and is working to build up a cruise industry while encouraging outside investment. The vice mayor of Rason mentioned in an interview, for instance, that people from Jamaica don't need a tourist visa. But they can't bring their mobile phones.
So why would North Korean officials believe that Jamaicans would want to sail out of North Korea on a short cruise? It must be the ship.
The invited press, including a writer for the New York Times, observed that the Mangyongbong was a 49-year-old, refurbished cargo vessel with rusty portholes and musty cabins. The sendoff was memorable, as 500 locals dressed in workers' clothing waved to people in officers' clothing while carnival music blared from two minivans parked on the pothole-filled pier.
Then came fireworks, flags were raised, and plastic flowers were tossed onto the open deck.
Cabin categories were straightforward. Many guests slept on wooden bunk beds, though those in economy categories were assigned mattresses on the floor. Eight guests to a room, meals served cafeteria-style on metal trays.
As the ship sailed, fresh coffee was served. The entertainment director arranged for karaoke and decks of playing cards. A fair number of the bathrooms lacked water. The food, described by the New York Times as resembling that found at "a mess hall at an American Army base," went mostly uneaten. Leftovers were dumped overboard, but because of capricious winds, much of it made its way back to the ship.
Now I could stop here, and we could all dismiss this new cruise product. But I've read some of the interviews Chinese travel agents gave about this inaugural, and several felt that at the equivalent of about $440 for a five-night cruise, it would be a relatively easy sell. It would appeal to Chinese who do not live along the coast as well as to the large ethnic Korean population along the Chinese border. Chinese tourism to North Korea is already a reality. And guess what? The Tourism Ministry spokesman alluded to a "much newer" 900-passenger ship to be added to the fleet, once the country can attract a little investment money.
No announcement has yet been made about possible pre- or post-cruise stays in the Ryugyong's many available rooms.
This important inaugural cruise ended with a bit of appropriate theatrics, as the Mangyongbong crashed into the pier while docking, turning portions of the structure into rubble.
Contributing editor Richard Turen owns Churchill and Turen, a vacation-planning firm that has been named to Conde Nast Traveler's list of the World's Top Travel Specialists since the list began. Contact him at [email protected].