Here’s why so many Chinese tourists are vacationing in North Korea

A group of Chinese tourists at the Joint Security Area in North Korea. Pic: Chintung Lee/Shutterstock

MILLIONS of Chinese cross borders to overseas destinations, and their appetite for travel looks to be stronger than ever.

In fact, The China Outbound Research Tourism Institute (COTRI) revealed data that showed countries other than greater China (Macau and Hong Kong) have been enjoying a boost in tourism from China, especially South Korea, Thailand and Japan.

But these are not the only countries in the region enjoying the fruits of China’s growing middle class. More and more Chinese are entering North Korea for leisure trips, and it looks like the trend is set to stay.

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In a report by South China Morning Post, South Korea estimated that 100,000 tourists visited North Korea in 2015, 90 percent of whom were from China. On the other hand, North Korea have been a bit more optimistic about numbers – they put the figure at 500,000 and project it to double by 2017.

The report added that many Chinese are fascinated by life across the Yalu River, and most know very little about the lives of their neighbors.

The air of mystery and secrecy that surrounds North Korea is being used to its advantage when promoting the nation’s tourism sector to the Chinese.

For instance, the SCMP report described a Chinese travel brochure: “Let us visit the world’s most insurmountable frontier! Let’s head to the world’s happiest and safest country, North Korea, to discover a China we were once familiar with.”

The promotional slant used to portray North Korea has piqued the curiosity of many Chinese who may cross the borders to a land they “once knew”. They might even have a good time.

A tourist wears a traditional Korean dress to have a souvenir photo taken. Pic: AP

In a separate report by The Washington Post, many Chinese tourists are swayed into entering North Korea for “communostalgia”, or “a chance to reminisce about the good old days of iron-fisted central planning”.

During group tours, tourists would be made to buy flowers to place at the bronze statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, the first two generations of the communist dynasty. The report added that Chinese tourists tend to be more “obedient and sympathetic” compared to American tourists in North Korea.

In a surreal account of a typical Chinese group tour, The Washington Post report said that tourists would stop at museums or gift shops to buy expensive gift sets and skincare items.

“This stuff is so cheap! And it’s natural and pure. North Korea isn’t polluted like China,” a tourist said.

There are also restaurants designed for tourists where the Chinese would partake in a little karaoke after dinner. The older men would often be accompanied by young North Korean women onstage while tour guides snapped photos.

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In July, the Dandong China International Travel Service introduced a special program for Chinese tourists to visit North Korea for half-day tours without passports or visas, a move many say was motivated by North Korea’s desperation for foreign currency amidst a string of international sanctions.

This has also helped to boost inbound numbers for North Korea, with a travel agency quoting that many Chinese tourists have signed up for tours since the launch of the program.

The half-day tour into the city of Sinuiju – marked at 350 RMB or about US$52 – only requires tourists to bring along their ID cards, with which they can use to apply for an entry permit at Dandong.

A beer server fills up glasses of draft beer at the beer festival in Pyongyang. Pic: AP

Meanwhile, in August, North Korea held its first ever beer festival in Pyongyang, an event that pulled in over 800 tourists and locals.

SEE ALSO: North Korea holds first ever beer festival to promote local brew 

Koryo Tours, a travel agency that organizes trips to North Korea for China tourists, managed to bring in over 100 visitors for the festival.

Simon Cockerell, general manager at the agency, said, “[The festival is] a testament to the universal power of a couple of cold beers on a warm evening to make people get along with each other.”

If North Korea keeps at it, their tourism sector could just relieve them of their economic and political woes, as well as bring about reform.