Eli Orzessek is Travel's Digital Content Producer.

Ask Away: Is North Korea the place to be?

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When visiting North Korea you must always be with a guide, writes Eli Orzessek.
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the Ryugyong Hotel. Photo / Clay Gilliland
The Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum and the Ryugyong Hotel. Photo / Clay Gilliland

I've had a fascination with North Korea for years and now I've heard various reports of it becoming a new hot travel destination. Is it a safe place to go? What should I be aware of before I book anything?
Regards
Mike

I can certainly understand the fascination with North Korea. I once went to an Auckland Central Library talk by a guy who had been there. It was the first time I'd heard a first-hand account and it was really interesting, but quite sad at the same time.

I put an article on nzherald.co.nz/travel just a couple of weeks ago about Aussie student Alek Sigley, who started the country's first North Korean tour company, Tongil Tours.

I don't know if I'd quite describe it as a "hot new travel destination" just yet, but North Korea is actively trying to entice foreign tourists.

There have even been special tourist zones established over the past few years and apparently an underwater hotel is in development.

If you do end up visiting, you may even be able to check in at the Ryugyong Hotel - the iconic triangular building on the Pyongyang skyline known as the "hotel of doom" - as it's rumoured to be opening this year for the first time since it was built 30 years ago.

Tongil Tours takes visitors to important architectural sites, as well as on skiing and hiking trips.

They also visit supermarkets and pubs in Pyongyang, so guests can rub shoulders with locals. They also offer trips to the Pyongyan Marathon, or to study the Korean language at Kim Il Sung University.

Sigley says if you use common sense and obey local laws, the country is very safe. Tourists should avoid proselytising, disrespecting North Korea's supreme leaders and taking photographs of soldiers or military areas.

"The main one is that you have to accept that your movement is restricted and you have to follow the group. You have to follow the itinerary and you have to follow the guide," he told news.com.au.

That's the main thing to remember - tourists in North Korea must always be accompanied by a local guide, so you're only going to be seeing what they want to show you, which could get frustrating. As soon as you strike out on your own, it becomes dangerous.

Look at what happened to American tourist Otto Warmbier in 2015 - he wanted a bit of communist kitsch as a souvenir and was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for stealing a political banner from a hotel. That's a pretty terrible thing to happen to a 21-year-old.
Of course, there's a huge ethical dilemma when it comes to visiting a country like North Korea and many people would understandably feel uncomfortable about spending money there.

However, Sigley's take is that engagement with foreigners is important for the local people.

"A lot of people say tourism and any form of engagement is not ethical, but I don't agree," he said.

"How is North Korea going to integrate with the rest of the world if it doesn't have contact with the world?"

It may be a longshot, but I'm keen to hear from any readers who have been to North Korea. Otherwise, let me know why you would or wouldn't travel there and I'll publish a selection of letters next week.

Tweet us @NZHTravel or use the hashtag #NZHAskAway
Email your questions to askaway@nzherald.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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Eli Orzessek is Travel's Digital Content Producer.

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