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Dennis Rodman's visit spurs interest in N. Korea tours

2:30 PM, Jan 11, 2014   |    comments
Dennis Rodman may be the highest-profile American tourist to visit North Korea. But thousands of others have ventured to the reclusive nation in the past two decades. (Photo: Kim Kwang Hyon, AP)
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Dennis Rodman may be the highest-profile American tourist to visit North Korea. But thousands of others have ventured to the reclusive nation in the past two decades. And travel opportunities are gradually increasing for foreign visitors with a taste for the unusual.

Beijing-based Koryo Tours escorted 2,000 clients to North Korea last year, about a quarter of whom were Americans, says the company's managing director, Simon Cockerell, who estimates 6,000 or so Western tourists visit annually.

"The number of places and areas of the country we have been able to gain access to has increased greatly, and continues to do so every year," he said.

Indeed, until 2010, American visitors were allowed into the country only during North Korea's annual Arirang Mass Games, a synchronized gymnastic performance that has been dubbed the "greatest, strangest, most awe-inspiring political spectacle on Earth." The games are usually staged in September in the capital of Pyongyang.

Koryo now offers a range of itineraries from two nights to about three weeks. Not that North Korea is by any means a mass-market destination.

"The food was terrible. The hotels were threadbare. The cities were bleak. It was a great vacation," Douglas Clark, a financial consultant from Draper, Utah, said of his 2012 trip there. "It's actually interesting because it's just so strange. I wanted to see it while it was still weird because it's not going to be like that forever."

Clark traveled with a group of about 25 from Beijing to Pyongyang, where they took in the last day of the Mass Games, then set out for parts beyond. His travel companions were a well-educated, well-traveled bunch, some of whom were ex-pat Americans living in China.

The group was closely monitored by "handlers" as they toured a model farm, an elementary school and countless statues of vaunted leaders Kim il Sung and Kim il Jong.

But the guides were kind and sincere, Clark said. "They genuinely wanted us to have a good impression of North Korea."

U.S. tour operator Mountain Travel Sobek began offering North Korean itineraries in 2012, with a $9,000 tour (that's about five times the annual income of the average North Korean), but prices have dropped for its two 2014 departures. The 10-day tours start at $4,695, plus airfare.

Another U.S. operator, Chicago-based Asia Pacific Travel suspended its 2013 tours to the country citing the "unfavorable geopolitical situation" on the Korean Peninsula, and has no tours scheduled for this year.

Travelers who do venture to this off-the-beaten-path spot will find a capital city that resembles '50s-era Soviet Russia, with rows of concrete apartment buildings, few cars and fewer stores. But the countryside is lovely. Even an encounter with an armed soldier while running on a beach in a northern resort area didn't diminish the overall experience for Clark.

Nor did exchanges with North Koreans, who seemed eager to meet Westerners. Clark, who lived for two years in Seoul decades ago, had, like many South Korean visitors, been to the Korean Demilitarized Zone dividing the two countries and was curious about what lay beyond.

"I wanted to get past the news and demystify the place," he said. "What's beyond those hills isn't menacing and bizarre. It's just people."

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