AUSTRALIAN student Alek Sigley has been showing curious visitors the sights of North Korea for years, but he can still remember his first trip to the “Hermit Kingdom”.
It was 2012 and Sigley, who was studying the North Korean language in northeast China, crossed the border for a field trip.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Sigley, 27, tells news.com.au. “I’ve travelled a bit and I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world quite like it.”
An industrialised country that had no advertising, no McDonald’s, no internet. It was, he says, “a little world of its own.”
But it had him hooked, and, within a year, he started Australia’s first and only specialist tour company operating in the enigmatic country of 25 million people.
Since then, he’s been to North Korea more times than he can count and he leads several tour groups there each year with his business Tongil Tours.
Despite its reputation as the world’s most isolated country, North Korea is on a tourism drive and dictator Kim Jong Un has set an ambitious goal of growing foreign visitors from just over 100,000 annually to two million by 2020.
A number of special tourism zones have been established over the past few years and, along with the more traditional tours of state sites and monuments, visitors can now go snowboarding, surfing and will soon be able to stay in an underwater hotel.
But facing sanctions for its nuclear weapons program and unable to shake allegations of enslavement, torture and public executions, boosting tourism numbers will be tough.
Sigley, who is from Perth but currently based in Seoul, says it was surprisingly easy to establish his tour business. He is partnered with one of three state-owned tourism companies and sees the country’s tourism drive as a positive sign.
“Tourism is something that the North Korean government wants to encourage. I think that more engagement with the outside world is a good thing.”
Still, a holiday in North Korea is unlike any other. Independent travel is out of the question, and foreigners can easily find themselves in trouble for seemingly innocuous crimes.
American tourist Otto Warmbier was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for stealing a political banner from a hotel in 2015. The year before, Australian Christian missionary John Short was detained and then expelled from the country after he left pamphlets promoting Christianity at a Buddhist temple.