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15 Mar, 2004

PATA Sends First Tourism Task Force to North Korea

The first tourism task force to operate into the world’s last purely communist country, North Korea, has painted a picture of a land that is ready for tourism from a scenic, cultural and infrastructure perspective but needs to significantly upgrade its management, marketing and accessibility.

The task force was organised by the Bangkok-based Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) upon request by the North Korean tourism authorities. The visit took place in September 2003 and the final report is about to be issued, just two months before PATA holds its annual conference on the South Korean island of Jeju.

The five-member PATA Task Force was led by Mr Neil Plimmer, former head of the New Zealand tourism board. It visited Pyongyang (4 days), Mount Myohyang (overnight trip), Kaesong / Panmunjon (day trip) and Nampho / West Sea Barrage (day trip). Although the itinerary was carefully scripted, the task force’s requests for unscheduled stops and diversions were always met.

The report is significant because Bangkok is one of only six international cities served by the official national airline Air Koryo, apart from Beijing, Shenyang, Macau, Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. No other airlines operate there as scheduled services, although a few are allowed as charters from South Korea.

Looking to expand its inbound tourism, North Korea has set up a national tourism authority, along with new state-owned inbound tour agencies to handle different and specialised groups of visitors.

Excluding South Koreans, North Korea is estimated to be getting 50,000 to 100,000 visitors a year of whom about 40 % are from China and represent cross-border travel. Others come from Japan (about 2,000 per annum), Russia, Hong Kong SAR and Macao SAR. The number of medium and long-haul travellers (mainly from Southeast Asia and Europe) appears less than a thousand per year.

The report says, “Tourism infrastructure such as hotels, restaurants, tour guides, ground transportation and a network of good highways offers DPRK the immediate capability to efficiently handle more visitors than it already does.

“DPRK’s existing tourism product provides the visitor with a diverse and unique holiday experience. Five millenniums of history and geography combine to offer visitors culture, beautiful mountains and forests, ancient temples and powerful monuments.

The report says North Korea is a very niche product that will appeal to a select group who wish to veer onto the “road less travelled”, and who are less price-sensitive and more tolerant of local conditions. It places North Korea in the same genre of destinations as Bhutan, Laos, Myanmar, Mongolia, Papua New Guinea, Tibet, central Asia and some parts of Indonesia.

It will also appeal to Buddhist pilgrims and scholars. “Buddhism has been part of the religious fabric of DPRK since its earlier history and many historic temples remain intact in many parts of the country. Entire collection of ancient Buddhist scriptures remain in some of these temples….”

“Well-preserved ancient architecture, religious relics and rituals and museums provide visitors with a window into DPRK’s rich and colourful heritage. Some of these may have sufficient historical and aesthetic merits for designation as UNESCO Heritage Sites,” the report says.

The report also notes the existence of a well-preserved wetland area in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which is rich in bird life and appears “suitable for strong conservation measures and carefully-controlled opening to visitors.”

The Task Force also saw strong benefits in the possibility of twin-destination activity featuring the two Koreas. At one level this would involve having arrangements that would enable foreign visitors to travel by land from Pyongyang and Kaesong to Seoul (and vice versa), or (preferably as well as) to fly on charter flights and eventually on scheduled flights between Seoul and Pyongyang.

“With such arrangements, ground operators in DPRK and South Korea could plan and promote an integrated tour package,” the report says

Current prices for an 8-day tour of North Korea (ground tour only) is around USD1,100 per person based on two visitors travelling together. With a group of ten visitors, the cost per person is reduced to around USD700.

This represents a price of USD135 per person per day for two visitors and USD90 per person per day for a group of ten. These prices include accommodation, fullboard with beverages, transfers and tours with a guide and entrance fees. International air and train fares are excluded.

Increasing expenditure per day or per trip is entirely feasible, the report says. A 20 percent increase on US$500 per trip to US$600 would realise from 100,000 arrivals earnings of an additional US$10 million to US$60 million.

A key recommendation was for the North Korean tourism authority to intensify its marketing and promotional efforts in key source markets. “International awareness of DPRK is currently driven by politics and little is known (both at the tourism industry and consumer levels) of the warm welcome that greets visitors and the experience that awaits them,” the report says.

Other recommendations include simplifying visa-issuing procedures, engaging in arrangements for fleet modernisation for the national carrier, attracting foreign carriers to fly to Pyongyang, increasing opportunities for South Koreans to visit by both cross-border land modes and by charter and scheduled flights, and enhancing the attractiveness of the rail trip from Beijing to Pyongyang.

The report says North Korean tourism authorities will need to strengthen their links with foreign companies or organisations to achieve the tourism objectives.

There are two other good reasons to visit North Korea.

No mobile phones are allowed in. Says the report, “Customs officials are on hand (at Pyongyang airport) to ask if one is carrying mobile phones and/or GPS devices, both of which must be placed in custom bond. They may be reclaimed on departure.”

That alone should certainly guarantee a peaceful vacation to stressed out executives looking for a place where they cannot be contacted.

For golfers looking for places where few have played before, there is a 9-hole golf course at the Yanggakdo Hotel in Pyongyang and an 18-hole Thaesong Golf Course on the outskirts of Pyongyang.

Says the report, “Both courses are very well maintained and have their respective pro-shops. Lady caddies provide useful tips about the course and were quick to assess the golfer’s level of competency. Golfers will find their experience unique and challenging and scorecards from both courses are of course valuable collector’s items.”

PATA CEO Mr Peter de Jong lauded the results of the historic task force. He said, “PATA and its broader membership seek to be partners of DPR Korea in developing tourism as a means to bring about greater economic benefits to its people. Along the way, it is hoped that tourism also forms the bridge of peace and understanding between the people of DPRK and the rest of the world.”

A full copy of the report is available from PATA. Contact Ms. Patcharin (Maew) Hongprapat (patcharin@pata.th.com)

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