Pyongyang: apparently nice at this time of year

With threats of nuclear strikes, missile tests and increasingly hostile rhetoric towards foreigners, North Korea is not the obvious destination for a holiday. But Regent Holidays, a leading British tour operator to the country, last week reported a huge surge in interest in trips to the hardline state.

Gillian Leaning, Regent's marketing manager, said there had been a 400 per cent increase in inquiries about trips to North Korea.

"Whether a country is in the news for good or bad reasons, people become curious," she said. "North Korea is not somewhere that is usually on the travel radar, but it is now. People want to see what it is like for themselves."

On Friday Kim Jong-un's government told Britain to consider evacuating its embassy in Pyongyang, but the Foreign Office is not advising Britons to avoid North Korea.

But it did say the situation could change, and urged travellers to take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns travellers to reconsider their need to travel on its Smart Traveller website.

Regent Holidays usually sends about 200 visitors there each year. Most tours - which are highly controlled - centre on the capital, Pyongyang, the demilitarised zone on the border with South Korea, and visits to the annual Arirang games, involving mass artistic and gymnastic performances.

Neil Taylor, a North Korea expert who pioneered Regent's tours, said: "They show you what they want to show you, confiscate your mobile phone and confine you to your hotel complexes.

"But North Korea is one of the last remaining countries that is almost totally cut off. No one knows how long that is going to last."


Meanwhile, tourists and guides say the situation on the ground in North Korea appears normal and calm, despite high international tensions and Pyongyang warning diplomats to consider leaving.

With the Korean peninsula in crisis and Pyongyang threatening a nuclear strike against the US, North Korean authorities have told embassies they would be unable to guarantee their safety if a conflict breaks out.

But tourists are still visiting the largely isolated state, with several groups on board a flight back to Beijing on Saturday.

"We're glad to be back but we didn't feel frightened when we were there," said Tina Krabbe, from Denmark, who spent five days in the country.

"It didn't feel like there was much tension in the city. We were OK actually."

A 15-year-old from Hong Kong on a school trip said: "My mum thought a war was going to break out or something like that."

But he added: "What we saw was all peaceful. There was absolutely no conflict... there was no unrest."

Visitors said they had been able to watch BBC news in their foreigner-only hotels.
A man and woman with American accents, carrying hand luggage only and no souvenirs, declined to be interviewed and said they were not allowed to talk to the media.

Nicholas Bonner, founder of Koryo Tours, who has been organising trips to North Korea for 20 years and visited last week, said life was "carrying on as normal".

"It is certainly tense, but people are going on with their daily work and tourism is continuing and people have been very hospitable," he said.

"Everyone just hopes that it'll blow over."

Western tourism to North Korea remains small-scale, with the country's marginalised nature acting as a draw for some travellers, but is only possible as part of an organised tour with local escorts.

Telegraph, London and AFP