MOUNT MYOHYANG, North Korea — When it comes to untrampled corners of the world, few options are left for getting off the beaten track. Cuba? Not what it once was. Burma? Basically open. Syria? Well, that’s out for now.
But for travelers with an Indiana Jones streak, the one place often considered impossible is becoming increasingly possible: North Korea.
A growing number of Western tourists — called “Europeans” in North Korea, even though they more and more often include Americans — are coming here to see whether this last remnant of the Cold War really is as bad as it’s made out to be.
“I wanted a new experience and wanted to see this place with my own eyes and to form my own views,” said Victor Malychev, a Russian-born telecommunications expert who has lived in Washington for 13 years.
“And I guess I wanted to have a kind of check mark next to it, too,” he conceded while on a tour organized by Young Pioneers, one of the newer travel companies operating in North Korea.
The handful of tour operators here are offering an increasingly diverse array of experiences — including skiing, cycling and golf. But tourists should be prepared not only to have government minders at their sides continually, but to traipse around monuments to the Kims and their communist dynasty.
Take Mount Myohyang, a beautiful hiking spot about a two-hour drive north of Pyongyang. The main attraction here, a regular stop on the tourist trail, is the “International Friendship Exhibition” — a six-story marble-floored building constructed to house the 100,000-odd gifts given to North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who remains its “eternal president” even two decades after his death.
It’s a real rogue’s gallery: Stalin, Mao, Assad, Gaddafi, Castro and Tito, and the tchotchkes they gave Kim. All of them show how much the world adores Kim and his heirs, or so the official tour guides say.
Many more people could soon be marching through these long, pristine halls, their shoes encased in special covers so they don’t come into contact with the hallowed floors.
Under a new policy, North Korea has set a goal of luring 1 million tourists, although it has not set a time frame for doing so.
But even those working with North Korea’s tourist industry say this number is “aspirational,” estimating that the country has 100,000 outside visitors a year. The vast majority of them are from neighboring China, which has the advantage of being not only geographically close but also not far removed from communist ways.
Furthermore, tour operators report that the number of Americans visiting the country has dropped noticeably since two American tourists, Jeffrey Fowle and Matthew Miller, were detained in April. Both have been charged with “hostile acts” and Miller is set to go to trial Sunday.
But even if North Korea does not achieve its goal of 1 million, it certainly is receiving many more tourists than it was even a few years ago.
Official figures are not available, but Chosun Sinbo, a pro-North Korea newspaper in Japan, reported that there has been a 20 percent increase in foreign tourism in North Korea in the first half of 2014 compared with the previous year, although it did not give numbers.
Simon Cockerell, the British general manager of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, one of the first Western travel companies to start tours to North Korea, estimates that 5,000 to 6,000 “Europeans” a year are visiting North Korea.
Tourist numbers for Young Pioneer have been doubling every year, and the company now brings almost 1,000 people annually to North Korea.
“A lot of people don’t know they can even come here, and then when they get here they say it’s not what they were expecting,” said Rowan Beard, 27, an Australian who runs Young Pioneers. “They think it’s going to be all doom and gloom and death and sad faces.”
Indeed, for all the new places that tourists have been allowed to go in recent years, many others remain off-limits. Tourists are never going to see labor camps where as many as 120,000 political prisoners toil, or the villages where children don’t get enough food because it has been diverted to the military.
“I think I’ve seen part of North Korea,” said Felicity Bloom, 26, of Madison, Wis., who was on the tour with Malychev. “I think the idea that we have in the States is that everyone you interact with will be an actor, but it’s not true. We traveled six stops on the metro, and we interacted with school children who were just as curious about us as we were about them.”
Such experiences were long unavailable to Americans, but it is becoming easier for citizens of the “imperialist aggressor” to visit North Korea. About a quarter of Koryo’s tourists come from the United States, Cockerell said.
Tourism is something of a risky proposition for North Korea. The regime has survived for decades by shutting off the country from the outside world, strictly controlling the information its citizens receive so that it could uphold the notion that North Korea was paradise on Earth.
But it also brings in much-needed revenue for the state. Although North Korea is one of the poorest countries, tours here don’t come cheap. An eight-day cycling trip organized by Uri Tours this month costs $2,850.
Critics of tourism say that such trips help prop up the regime, which can use the money to further its nuclear program. But Cockerell of Koryo Tours said the state does not sustain itself on tourist money and noted that many more North Koreans are now interacting with outsiders.
“The value of exposing as many North Koreans to as many foreigners as possible is inestimable because their image of foreigners is so negative,” said Cockerell, who is about to make his 140th trip to North Korea.
Still, Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, said North Korea’s promotion of tourism is “absolutely” about money.
“For decades, the North Korean leaders have been engaged in a hectic — and usually unsuccessful — search for some ways to get easy money without changing the system and/or creating political risks for themselves,” he said.
Tourism looks, at first glance, like a winning proposition. But there will not be enough foreigners willing to stay in an “uncomfortable ghetto,” as Lankov put it, to make a meaningful difference to the North Korean government.
“So far, the major attraction of the country for the Westerners is its political weirdness: It is a place to go and then boast to their buddies about this exploit,” Lankov said. “But I do not think 1 million admirers of this extreme tourism can be located every year.”