Nick Bonner offers comments on North Korea tourism

From China Business News:

Q: Koryo Tours has built its business by providing tour trips to North Korea. Why did you choose North Korea, and how tricky was it to get the business started?

A: In 1993, Joshua Green and I were approached by a North Korean colleague (that Josh had studied Chinese with at the Beijing Foreign Language University in 1998 and Nick played football with in 1993) who, after returning to Pyongyang had worked in the national travel company. At that time, it was a real fledgling travel industry (they only opened to western tourism in 1987) and less than 50 western tourists visited per year. We started going every month but with very few tourists, mainly driven by fascination, realisation that we had incredible access and the fun of working with some amazing Koreans. During the famine, we worked with aid agencies and continued tourism which brought in a steady amount of work for our Korean colleagues. in the past five years, DPRK tourism have seen growth, and we now take just under 1,000 tourists a year – about half of all western visitors. With my colleagues Simon and Hannah, we make sure that tourists have the best access possible to the country and people. Having specialised in one country for 16 years, it really does mean we are literally the only experts in this destination, and for every tourist we have taken it rates as one of their most amazing experiences.

Q: What effect does North Korea’s aggressive stance on defense have on your business – do people become more or less interested in visiting when it tests a nuclear bomb or fires a missile?

A: Every few weeks, North Korea makes the news for one reason or another, usually a negative reason of course. However, North Korea remains one of the safest and most fascinating countries in the world to visit. For those who are of the opinion that seeing a country for yourself is more valuable than watching the interpretation on the world news, then we provide them that access. In addition, as we accompany the tours, we provide an insight into the country that is difficult for a visitor to interpret. Our clientele are generally very worldly and aware and interested in what is going on, I think the DPRK being in the news for any reason puts it on people’s mental map and thus makes more people visit rather than being scared off.  

Q: North Korea is a pretty ‘left-field’ travel destination. What have been the key approaches to marketing your company, both locally and internationally?  

A: Our reputation has been established because we provide excellent service and we really do make sure that any visitor to Korea will have the time of their lives. We have a company responsibility to engage with the Koreans and much of our work is involved in cultural exchanges, film making and charity projects. I think this aspect of our work comes across to potential clients who see we really are more than a travel agency. We rely heavily on word of mouth and a great deal of our tourists know someone else who has been before, also we get a good number of repeat visitors as we don’t simply run the same tour over and over again. Being honest, doing the best job possible and maintaining good contacts with our previous clients are critical. This is how we keep a good reputation which we see as being the key to selling our product.  

Q:  Are you planning to diversify to other locations beyond North Korea – and if so, how do you choose new destinations?

A: Since 2006, we have been running twice-yearly tours to Turkmenistan, which is a fascinating and amazing place to go. In addition to this, in 2010, we are planning on offering a wider range of tours to places such as Tajikistan (for Persian New Year – when they hold a Buzkashi event), to the Tumen river area including Yanji in China, the North Korean free trade zone of Rajin-Sonbong, and Far Eastern Russia (around Vladivostok), also a tour to the North Western Caspian Sea region including Volgograd (once known as Stalingrad) and the mysterious republics of Kalmykia and Dagestan. All are remarkable, highly-interesting, and unique places that we think our discerning clients will be interested in. North Korea remains the focal point of our company, but these other destinations fit well in the mould of visiting unusual but interesting places.

Although I have never visited the DPRK with Koryo Tours, I did travel to Turkmenistan and I recommend it.  That trip launched my interest in Central Asia, and I quickly followed it up with visits to Iran and Tajikistan.

Read the full story here:
BizTalk Interview: Nick Bonner, Founder of Koryo Group
Gary Bowerman


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