The North Korean capital has seven hotels to which foreigners might be allocated; none can be booked through the OTAs. Although Pyongyang is not actually difficult to visit, tourists must be part of a group and are subject to close supervision. Every move is planned and controlled, and selection of the accommodation is the responsibility of the state-owned Korea International Travel Company (KITC). With few exceptions this means the 20-year old Yanggakdo International Hotel.
The 47-storey Yanggakdo stands on its own island in the middle of the Taedong River in central Pyongyang and boasts 1,000 rooms and a rooftop revolving restaurant. On a recent visit to get a taste of North Korean hospitality, we founds a hotel which was comfortable, if dated, with polite and capable staff. The location is significant – a single guarded bridge links the island to the city so there is no chance of guests wandering off unattended. With a nod to normal marketing practices this restriction is presented as a benefit to visitors, who need not face the perils of Pyongyang alone.
It is not easy to ask questions in Pyongyang. Officially you can’t, as journalists are not easily granted visas for the purpose, and there is also a tendency for people to give official answers. This, of course, also assumes you’ve found someone who speaks English, as one issue in hotels the world over is hiring and retaining staff with the necessary language skills. In this regard the Yanggakdo appears at least satisfactory. All the front line service staff in the hotel were clearly able to communicate well enough to perform their roles, and what was especially notable was the quality of their pronunciation. Travelers in Asia will normally hear English mangled in a wide range of styles, as local linguistic backgrounds interfere with the production of English sounds, but the Yanggakdo’s staff were uncannily accurate. Was it just that the twenty people in the country who speak English well had all been given hospitality roles? Were they all highly trained operatives for the North Korean secret services? Is North Korean education really good? Of course it’s possible they’ve all picked it up from TV – the hotel offers Al Jazeera news in the rooms, although not in the public areas of the hotel. In public the options are limited to coverage of the current activities of Kim Jong-Un interspersed with highlights of the previous activities of Kim Jong-Un, or the karaoke channel with patriotic songs performed to a backdrop of assorted military hardware.
We visited a school, and were allowed to talk to some of the students. One 17 year-old spoke eloquently of his love of studying the revolutionary history of the leaders – all prepared and rehearsed – but was then able to continue the conversation fluently on unscripted and mundane matters. He was outstanding, but we are left to estimate the distribution of excellence from the observation of a few outliers. We did see some locally produced English language textbooks, with content related to life in North Korea, and the relevance of the language and lack of errors would certainly put other regional publishers to shame.
F & B is a key area for many hotels and the Yanggakdo, with its captive audience, is no different. A range of restaurants are potentially available: there is a Chinese restaurant, called Chinese Restaurant’, a Korean restaurant called ‘Korean Restaurant’, and then two main ground floor restaurants called ‘Restaurant No. 1’ and ‘Restaurant No. 2’. The marketing department clearly keeps its imagination firmly in check, but there’s no lack of creativity in the hotel’s souvenir shop. In a normal economy, hotels whose guests have little choice but to shop on the premises will often raise prices extortionately. The Yanggakdo doesn’t bother. Instead there is a range of German and Swiss chocolate at prices which have to be lower than in Germany or Switzerland, and an absolutely stunning selection of canned fish.
It is unlikely that the Yanggakdo is going to face any significant competition in the near future, but the North Korean regime is currently seeking to increase the number of tourist arrivals. The stated target is 2 million annual visitors by 2020. The reality is that current figures are probably around one tenth of that, but neither the KITC nor the Chinese authorities have published data since 2012. Approximately 80% of the tourist market comes from China as a type of nostalgia tourism, as Chinese visitors hope to see what their own country used to be like. This market faces pressure from South Korea, however. Many Chinese travel agencies offered tours, but were subsequently informed by Seoul that they may lose their right to send groups to South Korea if they continued to operate in the North. A busy week in the South can account for as many visitors as a whole year in the North, so a majority of agencies acceded to Seoul’s demands.
One positive piece of news is the opening of the new high speed rail lines to the Chinese border city of Dandong, which brings millions more Chinese within easy reach of North Korea, but although North Korea allows them access to cities just across the border, their activities are still rather limited to staying in their hotels.
For western visitors, the numbers are still very small. There are practical misconceptions among the ill-informed and ethical concerns among those who know more about North Korea. For hoteliers, it is improbable that any opportunities will arise in the near future – but we need only look to countries such as Myanmar to see what happens what political changes take place. Many people fail to realize that North Korea is a very beautiful country, and its lack of economic development has in many ways contributed to that beauty. Much of it has not been destroyed, and in comparison to neighboring China, it is relatively clean and unpolluted. Pyongyang is an attractive city, clean and orderly, with a greater range of interesting sights than many much larger Asian cities. It offers world-class museums and cultural entertainment, and if the political situation changes, has the potential to immediately attract far more visitors than its hospitality infrastructure can possibly handle. Politics aside, North Korea is a great place to visit. If it one day opens up, it will be THE place to invest.