If your dream vacation is sipping margaritas on the beach, then you probably want to pass on Young Pioneer Tours.
The mainland China-based budget tour company specialises in “destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from,” according to its website.
The company has been in the news because Frederick Warmbier, a 21-year-old University of Virginia student who participated in Young Pioneer Tour’s five-day New Year’s excursion to Pyongyang, was detained just prior to his return flight to China.
North Korean officials accused him of wanting to “destroy the country’s unity” and “committing a hostile act” against the state, according to Reuters.
Warmbier is still being held under secretive conditions in North Korea, his five-day vacation turning into a prolonged nightmare.
But the dangers associated with travelling to North Korea haven’t deterred some travellers. The company received a “Certificate of Excellence” from Trip Advisor in 2014 and 2015, with 270 people rating their experience as “excellent” on the site.
The reviews are also mostly positive. “YPT delivers on every front,” one user writes. “Positively eye-opening,” writes another.
But Young Pioneer Tours doesn’t get all perfect reviews. In a two-week-old review on Trip Advisor, a user named Mrs. S wrote that her husband had briefly been taken into custody by North Korean soldiers while on the return train from Pyongyang — North Korea’s capital — to Beijing.
Her husband was eventually released, but the episode highlights how unpredictable, and downright scary, North Korean travel can be.
Young Pioneer Tours is just one operator in the nascent North Korean tourism industry. Depending on your price point, intrepid Westerners can sign up with Koryo Tours, for a more scheduled, luxurious affair, or even Tongil Tours, which specialises in academic and cultural exchanges.
As the number of tourists entering North Korea swells, the ethics — and safety — of visiting the most insular kingdom of the world has been called into question.
Ji Min-kang, a North Korean who successfully fled the country, told the Guardian in October that, “You cannot see the real North Korea as a tourist.”
And the US State Department “strongly recommends” against all travel to North Korea, warning that “US citizens have been subject to arrest and long-term detention for actions that would not be cause for arrest in the United States.”
“Many tourists — and all of the foreign tour operators — assuage their consciences by telling themselves they are furthering the cause of peace or reform by building trust, breaking down barriers, and so on,” B.R. Myers, a well-known North Korea scholar who teaches at a university in Busan, South Korea, told The Washington Post. “This is all nonsense.”
We reached out to Young Pioneer Tours to comment on Frederick Warmbier’s detention in North Korea and will update this post when we receive a response.
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