The Ethical Traveler: the North Korea tourism trade surge has started

From culture to politics, we are seeing a shift in the travel industry as business grows while leisure remains under pressure

Is North Korea a tourism destination? Last year, the state tourism department in Pyongyang began touting tours to North Korea’s North Jeolla province, first to China and then to the UK, as “the safest tour in the world”.

This may have been due to an improvement in security following a crackdown following Kim Jong-nam’s assassination in 2017, but the same post also promoted “unique, cultural” opportunities:

Impoverished, traditional, unspoilt … treks, hiking and fishing are often the theme of the itineraries. Read more: North Korea tourism

The US government has issued a travel advisory cautioning American citizens against travel to North Korea due to safety concerns. “The value of travel to North Korea is likely to be low,” it says.

Air New Zealand has pulled out of offering services to Iran, citing security concerns. Three years ago the airline was sanctioned by the US for supporting North Korea and is refusing to permit passengers to travel to two other countries at risk of US sanctions: Syria and Sudan. In a statement the airline said: “Most routes between New Zealand and Iran are served by other carriers so there is no economic impact.”

The current wave of Iranian travellers includes even hardened security professionals, who cite the country’s potential as a travel destination. Unrest following the country’s 2009 nuclear deal has almost halved the number of foreign travellers but ordinary people are willing to explore the country to make a dent in $400bn (£318bn) in Iran’s foreign reserves, which is used to purchase weapons and commodities. Read more: Iran tourists: are we catching a glimpse of the future?

Earlier this week, the World Economic Forum released its annual Global Competitiveness Report, charting trends in 72 countries and highlighting the best and worst performing economies in the world. Mauritius topped the report’s tourism ranking, followed by South Korea and Sri Lanka. But tourists’ spending and the economy’s attractiveness to foreign companies and investors is yet to receive the same recognition: for example, Sri Lanka’s per capita GDP of $5,100 is less than $1,300 in most European and American countries. Read more: A survey looks at all 182 countries in the world

Meanwhile, in politics, the travel industry is transforming as a political, business and financial force in China and around the world.

The World Bank in January announced that Chinese tourists alone spend nearly $500bn annually, dwarfing the combined spending of Britons, Americans and other westerners, who, it estimates, collectively spend $256bn.

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