A regular on a road less travelled

Walter Keats, who runs the only US tour company approved by North Korea, has been taking visitors to the isolated state since 1995.

Walter Keats in North Korea.

Courtesy of: Walter Keats *** Local Caption ***  korn-Kaesong-Concrete Wall-Grp5-20080903-DSC_3021-crop.jpg
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BEIJING // While US citizens were fixated on CNN's live footage of the dramatic return of a pair of journalists from North Korea after a rescue mission by the former president Bill Clinton, Walter Keats was looking forward to yet another trip to the isolated communist state.

In August alone he was in North Korea twice. He even brought other people with him. Mr Keats runs the only US tour company approved by the North Korean authorities to bring foreign tourists to one of the world's least travelled countries. The reclusive state does not sound like a usual travel destination. The country, after all, is a member of the tripartite "axis of evil" cursed by George W Bush, a US former president. In the minds of many, it tends to evoke fear, if not horror.

"This year my business dropped by more than a half," Mr Keats said in an interview in Beijing. Some people withdrew their bookings out of concern that they might suffer the same fate as the detained journalists, though Mr Keats said none of his clients have had problems leaving North Korea since he started the tours in 1995. Mr Keats did not intend to embark on this uncommon mission when he started his upscale East Asian tourism company in the late 1970s. Then, 14 years ago, he wanted to expand his business.

"I started the North Korean tours because I was looking for something new for my Asia tour service and North Korea was not open," he said. But not all people, including North Koreans, see it as a purely business endeavour. He is used to getting suspicious looks. "Once a North Korean guide pulled aside a member of our tour group and asked him why I was doing this business. I don't think they really understand a business person. He probably suspected I was a spy," Mr Keats said.

These days, a tour to North Korea usually comes as a five-day/four-night package at a cost of US$2,800 (Dh10,300) and all are guided by North Koreans. Tourists must have their guides with them at all times. Photography is strictly controlled, as is interaction with locals. The Arirang Festival, in which 100,000 synchronised gymnasts perform inside the world's largest stadium, is the high point of any visit to North Korea. Human rights organisations claim students are forced to participate, receive beatings and endure long training hours and suffer from malnourishment.

In North Korea, foreigners do not get to see what they frequently read about and see in the media. "You don't see labour camps, you don't see anybody being arrested, you don't see anyone starving. They control the message," Mr Keats said. Still, North Korea offers a unique travel experience, featuring sights such as Mansu Hill, where a Korean War memorial and statue of the former dictator Kim Il Sung are located. Other highlights of Mr Keats's tours include the Arch of Triumph, Geumsu-san Memorial Palace and the Kim Il Sung mausoleum.

The mausoleum is regarded as holy by North Koreans and foreign tourists are advised by their minders to "dress up" for the occasion. Tourists also get to see the "armed spy ship Pueblo", a US intelligence-gathering vessel captured by North Korea in 1968. Visitors to North Korea generally come prepared for the restrictions they will face, Mr Keats said, and "behave very well" in the country, preferring not to be adventurous. "And they still very much appreciate their uncommon experience there [because it] may not be there if the country goes through reforms like Russia or China." The tourists who do complain about the lack of freedoms tend to be from China.

The Chinese, as Cold War allies, have enjoyed the most access to the hermit nation. But as China distances itself from its old, rigid socialist ideology and introduces market influences, and as Chinese people grow to appreciate their increasing individual freedoms, Chinese tourists are becoming critical of the North Korean system. "North Koreans wanted us to pay respects to the statue of Kim Il Sung. That kind of personal worship was something we used to do during the Cultural Revolution. We don't do it any more, so we complained loudly about it," said one Chinese tourist who travelled there recently by train from Dandong, a border city.

Mr Keats' personal dealings with North Koreans for the past 14 years got him interested in its domestic and foreign affairs, including the ongoing nuclear confrontation with the international community. He has read extensively on the subject and met some key policy makers, including the former US chief negotiator Christopher Hill and his successor, Kurt Campbell, as well as North Korean diplomats.

In what has become something of a personal crusade, Mr Keats is calling on the US to begin bilateral negotiations with Pyongyang. "If you want to change North Korea, you need influence over it and if you want to have influence, you need to have a relationship. So you need to be talking to them. If you don't talk to them, you don't have any influence." foreign.desk@thenational.ae