North Korea tourism operators see numbers nosedive amid growing tensions

Business hit by threatening rhetoric, death of arrested US student and subsequent American travel ban

Although fewer tourists were visiting North Korea in late 2017, Sandeep Sangha, 36, from Melbourne, Australia, made the trip in November and said it was a "fascinating" experience. Photo courtesy Sandeep Sangha
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One of the leading organisers of tours to North Korea says business has plummeted by at least half since June amid tensions between the US and the rogue state.

Simon Cockerell, general manager of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, said the slump in visitors to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea compared to last year was because of three factors.

"The first half of this year numbers were strong but from around June, with the increase in tensions, the September ban on US travellers and the Otto Warmbier case, there has been at least a 50 per cent drop in numbers, and that is a conservative estimate."

Tensions have been building up since US president Donald Trump took office in January, with the former businessman vocal in his criticism of North Korea's nuclear programme and Pyongyang stepping up the frequency of its missile and nuclear tests. Mr Trump escalated his attacks during his debut address to the United Nations in September, calling out the "depraved regime" of Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses and describing the North Korean leader as a "Rocket Man" who was "on a suicide mission for himself".

Mr Trump also referred to Warmbier, an American university student who visited North Korea in January 2016. Warmbier had been out drinking in Pyongyang with other members of his tour group, customers of Young Pioneer Tours, a North Korea travel specialist based in Xian, China, when early on New Year's Day he was caught trying to steal a propaganda banner from a restricted area of the hotel he was staying in.

The 21-year-old was arrested and eventually sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment with hard labour for trying to take the banner. He was released in June after 17 months when North Korean officials said he had fallen into a coma after contracting botulism and taking a sleeping pill. Warmbier died shortly after arriving back on US soil. In a post mortem US doctors could not rule out botulism as cause of death.

On September 1 the US state department imposed a ban on citizens travelling to North Korea.

Mr Cockerell, a Briton who has made 168 trips to North Korea, said 20 per cent of Koryo's customers were from America.

Dylan Harris, founder of Lupine Travel, a North Korea travel specialist  based in England, said his company has also seen a drop in business this year. "Particularly the second half of the year, we have seen large numbers of people cancelling trips," he said. He blamed the increased tensions, the Warmbier case and travel warnings issued by the British Foreign Office.

The US ban on travel to North Korea had a high-profile consequence this week as former NBA star Dennis Rodman was stopped from making a sixth visit there. Rodman, who has met North Korea's leader twice, said Mr Trump should appoint him as a peace envoy to the country. "I've been trying to tell Donald since day one: 'Come talk to me, man. I'll tell you what the Marshal wants more than anything. It's not even that much,'" Rodman told The Guardian newspaper.

Whether Rodman will be given a role as freelance US diplomat remains to be seen, but on Tuesday the secretary of state Rex Tillerson signalled a shift in policy towards North Korea. He said the US was ready to start exploratory talks "without preconditions", but only after a "period of quiet" where Pyongyang refrained from nuclear or missile tests.

The secretary of state also made clear that the goal of such talks would be full nuclear disarmament, arguing that containment was not an option as North Korea would try to earn much-needed money by selling its nuclear weapons on the black market.

Despite the tensions, tourists continue to visit North Korea. Sandeep Sangha, 36, from Melbourne, Australia, went on a six-day tour in mid November. "We found the trip fascinating," he said. "The part that surprised me the most was the people. With the exception of the devotion to their leader, these people were all much like us".

Scot McCulloch, 27, from Scotland, who also visited in mid November, said it was one of the best places he had been to and would go back "in a heartbeat".

"Being there blew my mind," he said. "No one realises the beauty of this country, and it has such a sad history, which it is still suffering from."