Dennis Rodman may be the highest-profile American tourist to visitNorth Korea. But thousands of others have ventured to the reclusivenation in the past two decades. And travel opportunities aregradually increasing for foreign visitors with a taste for the unusual.
Beijing-based Koryo Toursescorted 2,000 clients to North Korea last year, about a quarter ofwhom were Americans, says the company's managing director, SimonCockerell, who estimates 6,000 or so Western tourists visit annually.
"Thenumber of places and areas of the country we have been able to gainaccess to has increased greatly, and continues to do so every year," hesaid.
Indeed, until 2010, American visitors were allowed into thecountry only during North Korea's annual Arirang Mass Games, asynchronized gymnastic performance that has been dubbed the "greatest,strangest, most awe-inspiring political spectacle on Earth." The gamesare usually staged in September in the capital of Pyongyang.
Koryonow offers a range of itineraries from two nights to about threeweeks. Not that North Korea is by any means a mass-market destination.
"Thefood was terrible. The hotels were threadbare. The cities were bleak.It was a great vacation," Douglas Clark, a financial consultant fromDraper, Utah, said of his 2012 trip there. "It's actually interestingbecause it's just so strange. I wanted to see it while it was stillweird because it's not going to be like that forever."
Clarktraveled with a group of about 25 from Beijing to Pyongyang, where theytook in the last day of the Mass Games, then set out for parts beyond.His travel companions were a well-educated, well-traveled bunch, someof whom were ex-pat Americans living in China.
The group wasclosely monitored by "handlers" as they toured a model farm, anelementary school and countless statues of vaunted leaders Kim il Sungand Kim il Jong.
But the guides were kind and sincere, Clark said. "They genuinely wanted us to have a good impression of North Korea."
U.S. tour operator Mountain Travel Sobek beganoffering North Korean itineraries in 2012, with a $9,000 tour (that'sabout five times the annual income of the average North Korean), butprices have dropped for its two 2014 departures. The 10-day tours startat $4,695, plus airfare.
Another U.S. operator, Chicago-based Asia Pacific Travel suspendedits 2013 tours to the country citing the "unfavorable geopoliticalsituation" on the Korean Peninsula, and has no tours scheduled for thisyear.
Travelers who do venture to this off-the-beaten-path spotwill find a capital city that resembles '50s-era Soviet Russia, withrows of concrete apartment buildings, few cars and fewer stores. Butthe countryside is lovely. Even an encounter with an armed soldier whilerunning on a beach in a northern resort area didn't diminish theoverall experience for Clark.
Nor did exchanges with NorthKoreans, who seemed eager to meet Westerners. Clark, who lived for twoyears in Seoul decades ago, had, like many South Korean visitors, beento the Korean Demilitarized Zone dividing the two countries and wascurious about what lay beyond.
"I wanted to get past the news anddemystify the place," he said. "What's beyond those hills isn't menacingand bizarre. It's just people."