COULD NORTH KOREA BECOME A TOURIST DESTINATION?

Kim Jong-Un meets Donald Trump
After Donald Trump's historic meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, Trump said in a press conference that North Korea has "great beaches" suitable for luxury hotels.

Following Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the United States’ President commended North Korea’s “great beaches”, claiming they’d be an excellent location for condos and hotels.

Tourism in North Korea is currently very tightly controlled by the ruling government. Approximately 100,000 guests visit the country every year, most visiting from neighbouring China, with just 4,000 to 6,000 tourists coming from the West. In 2015, Kim Jong-un officially sanctioned a push for tourism growth in the country, hoping to draw in two million tourists per year by 2020.

Only four tourism organisations are permitted to operate in the country, all of which are all run by the state. Interactions between tourists and the local populace are equally scarce, most Western tourists’ actions are monitored closely when visiting.

There are 25 hotels in North Korea, the most renowned of which is the Yanggakdo Hotel. This monolithic structure is the largest operating hotel and the second tallest building in the country, with 47-stories and 1000 bedrooms. North Korea’s first luxury hotel will set guests back $499 USD ($712 NZD) per night for two adults.

Yanggakdo Hotel

Despite its brutish appearance, Yanggakdo International Hotel is North Korea’s first luxury hotel.

Looking like something out of a dystopian science fiction film, the giant glass triangle building of the Ryugyong Hotel has been under construction since 1987. It was supposed to open in 2012, but as of 2018, its doors remain closed. Reaching 330 metres tall, the hotel has 105 floors, intends to hold over 3,000 guest rooms with five revolving restaurants near the top of the tower. Due to North Korea’s secretive nature, details surrounding the hotel’s opening are scarce.

Ryugyong Hotel with LED North Korean flag.

The latest known development on the Ryugyong Hotel is the addition of a giant LED screen all around the top showcasing a North Korean flag.

Trump’s claim that North Korea has “great beaches” is also of interest. North Korea’s climate is similar to that of South Korea and Japan, and so the beaches there are popular attractions for locals and visitors alike, primarily between June and August. The Pacific coastline is lined with long sandy beaches and picturesque cliffs that would draw in plenty of tourists if they were hosted in a more hospitable country.

Majon Beach, in particular, is a long sandy haven, with calming swimmable shallows. On a sunny day, Majon Beach is regularly filled with plenty of locals enjoying themselves partying, playing volleyball or cooking up a barbeque on the beachfront; activities not typically associated with North Korea.

There are drawbacks to their beaches though. Like their Chinese neighbours, North Korea is widely affected by smog, and it carries over to their coastline into even their most desirable beaches.

Majon beachfront

The city of Majon is also a major industrial location. Shown here is a chemical plant operating within swimming distance from the beachfront.

Furthermore, it is not recommended for tourists to drink or enjoy themselves too much on North Korean beaches, as visitors – particularly those from Western countries – are still watched carefully, and any steps out of line will be acted upon.

Despite North Korea’s eagerness to grow as a tourist destination, its recent history suggests it’s still hesitant to let tourists in. Beginning October 2014, North Korea issued a complete travel ban for four months, fearing foreigners might bring the Ebola contagion into the country. This was a more extreme measure than most other countries took; the United Kingdom for instance only blocked travellers coming in from Ebola-stricken nations such as Guinea and Sierra Leone, and their direct neighbours Senegal and Mali.

Trump isn’t entirely wrong – the sandy beaches in North Korea do have some promise. If North Korea is to develop hotels on the coastline though, it will need to work hard on increasing the number of tourists coming into the country as planned. Even then, the beaches will primarily be a drawcard to visitors from Asian countries like landlocked Mongolia, or their closest partner China, whose beach offerings are densely populated and suffer from pollution and algae issues. The beaches only have a limited appeal to Western travellers who have options to travel to locations with cleaner air and more freedom. Following Trump’s meeting with Kim Jong-un, it is unclear if any progress between the two nations has been made, but it is clear that North Korea as of now still has a long way to go from having the “best hotels in the world right there”.