Send to

Tour operator opens door on secretive N. Korea

March 22, 2011 - 11:07 By 민동현
BEIJING (AFP) ― Millions of tourists visit Asia each year for its pristine beaches and cultural treasures, but Nick Bonner offers travelers something different: the “socialist paradise” of North Korea.

Bonner launched Koryo Tours in Beijing in 1993 along with a few colleagues, taking an initial group of 12 curious tourists keen for a glimpse inside one of the world’s most isolated countries.

That grew last year to 1,300 hardy travelers, who take in such unconventional tourist sites as a former sanatorium, a seafood processing plant, and a “model collective farm,” said Bonner, a former landscape architect.

“Most people we take in are not the sort of people who would normally travel on group tours. For us, it is important the person has the best experience possible,” Bonner said in an interview at his offices in Beijing.

It was just that for British chemical engineer Dennis Murphy, who was impressed by being treated “almost as an official visitor” on a trip he called “magic ... an entry into a totally different world.”

North Korea has only been open to Western tourists since 1987 and remains tightly controlled. Koryo clients are accompanied by North Korean minders at all times and independent wandering is forbidden.

Foreign journalists are not allowed on the tours, and American tourists are still banned from exiting North Korea by train to China ― the North’s main link with the outside world.

Initially, Koryo Tours could only bring its clients to Pyongyang, the Demilitarized Zone on the border with South Korea and Mount Myohyang, said Bonner, who also opened the first live music club in Beijing in the early 1990s.

“Slowly we have been getting more and more access,” the Briton said of his tours, which bring in roughly half of foreign tourists to North Korea in partnership with the state-run Korea International Travel Company.

“It has been amazing, based on trust.”

Nicholas Bonner, an owner of the Koryo tour agency, shows off snapshots from North Korean daily life at his office in Beijing. (AFP-Yonhap News)

North Korea is desperately poor after decades of isolation and bungled economic policies. Huge numbers of its estimated 24 million people suffer inadequate nutrition, aid agencies say.

That is a side of the country tourists do not see, but the door is slowly opening.

With the help of 40 local multilingual tour guides, Koryo’s offerings have expanded to include the “tranquil beaches” of North Korea’s coasts, and even home stays in the town of Haeju and the industrial city of Chongjin.

Tours also go to the South Korean-funded joint industrial estate in Gaeseong, the port city of Nampo, and Mount Baekdu ― a sacred site for North Koreans near the birthplace of leader Kim Jong-il previously closed to Amricans.

In September, Bonner will achieve a first ― taking foreign tourists on a bicycle trek near Mount Baekdu.

“That had never been done before ― it’s a challenge,” Bonner said.

In Pyongyang, women are not allowed to cycle as it is viewed as “inelegant... and dangerous,” Bonner said.

Also on the tourist trail is the country’s second-largest city Hamheung, open to foreigners only since last year, and Rason, a rarely-seen “free trade” area.

One trip is centered around March 21, the day personal income tax was abolished in the Stalinist country, while another offers the chance to “relax in a former sanatorium on the east coast.”

But the real prize is a visit to the Arirang Mass Games ― the world’s largest choreographed display of synchronized acrobatics, dance and flip-card displays, involving up to 100,000 people.

“The most spectacular event on Earth ... a performance ... which is only possible in North Korea,” a Koryo brochure says of the next festival in August.

Trips to North Korea are not cheap. A four-night stay can run about $1,400 a person.

The cost helps Bonner to fund another venture ― making documentary films in the country, which in the past have been shown at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States.

Tony Yoo, an Australian, said he was struck by “the severe isolation of the country and the deprivation of liberty, even for foreign visitors.”

Some wonder if the tourist dollars support a regime universally condemned for rights abuses, but Greek traveler Peter Psiachos said it could help coax North Korea out of its isolation.

“It would make people there less fearful of outsiders and further educate us that North Korea is not the enemy,” Psiachos, a lawyer who lives in New York, said.

Australian teacher Lachlan Olive visited North Korea in October, expecting “drab, heavily polluted” scenes, but was surprised by the number of parks and greenery in Pyongyang, and the quality of its infrastructure.

But he wondered whether, on a visit to a modern collective farm supposedly visited repeatedly by North Korean leader Kim Il-sung, he was seeing the real North Korea.

“We also visited an orphanage that had a similar feeling of being ‘sexed up’ for our benefit,” he said.

<관련 기사>

<북한 전문 中 고려여행사 지속적 성장 `눈길'>

'세계에서 가장 고립된 나라' 북한을 서구 관광객들에게 소개하는 한 여행사가 꾸준히 성장하고 있다고 AFP통신이 21일 소개했다.

전직 조경사로 중국 베이징(北京)에 최초의 라이브 음악 클럽을 만들기도 했던 영국인 닉 보너가 베이징에 북한 전문 여행사인 고려여행사(Koryo Tours)를 차리고 북한 관광 사업에 나선 것은 지난 1993년.

고객 12명으로 시작한 그의 사업은 평범한 관광보다 극단적이고 신기한 체험을 원하는 고객들을 모아 작년에는 연간 고객 1천300명 규모로 성장했는데, 이는 북한 방문 외국 관광객의 절반 가량에 이르는 숫자다.

북한은 지난 1987년 서구 관광객들에게 최초로 문호를 개방한 이후에도 여전히 관광객들에 대한 통제가 심해 고려관광 고객들도 여행 내내 북한 감시원들이 항상 동행하며 개별 행동은 금지된다.

또 언론인은 관광 참가가 불허되고 미국인 관광객은 북한에서 중국행  열차편으로 출국하는 것이 금지되는 등 규제가 적지 않으며, 비용도 4일간 1천400달러(약 150만원)에 이를 정도로 싸지 않다.

그러나 고려여행사는 북한 당국과 신뢰를 꾸준히 쌓은 결과 애초 평양,  비무장지대(DMZ), 묘향산으로 국한됐던 관광 대상지를 개성공단, 남포항, 백두산, 심지어 해주시ㆍ청진시의 가정 민박까지 넓히는 데 성공했다.

이제 고려여행사는 오는 9월 백두산 인근 자전거 트레킹 관광을 최초로 벌이고, 작년 외국인에게 개방된 함흥시와 특수경제무역지대로 거의 외부에 목격된 바가  없는 라선시도 외국인 관광객들에게 선보일 계획이다.

그러나 뭐니뭐니해도 이 회사의 주력 상품은 10만명이 동원되는 세계 최대 규모의 집단 체조 공연 '아리랑'으로, 이 회사는 내년 8월 아리랑 공연을 '지구상  최대의 장관, 북한에서만 가능한 공연'이라고 광고하고 있다.

이 같은 북한 관광 사업의 성공에 힘입어 보너는 사업 수익금을 북한 소재 다큐멘터리 영화 제작에도 투자하고 있는데 그가 투자한 '천리마 축구단', '어떤 나라'등은 세계 각종 영화제 출품을 통해 널리 알려지기도 했다.

다만 이처럼 관광객들을 통해 북한에 유입되는 달러화가 인권탄압 등으로  악명높은 북한 정권을 떠받치는 것 아닌가 하는 의문도 일부 제기되고 있다.

이에 대해 북한을 관광했던 그리스인 페터 프시아코스는 "관광은 북한 사람들이 외부인을 좀 덜 무서워하게 만들고 더 나아가 북한이 우리의 적이 아니라는 사실을 우리에게 가르치게 될 것"이라며 북한 관광의 순기능을 강조했다.

또 작년 10월 북한을 여행했던 호주인 교사 래클런 올리브는 평양의 녹지와  인프라의 질에 놀랐으나 한 집단농장을 방문하고 나서는 자신이 보는 것이 북한의  진짜 모습인지 의문이 들었다고 덧붙였다.