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North Korea: (Almost) everyone’s welcome. Bring cash.

Welcome to North Korea. The isolated, totalitarian state with the surprisingly lax visa requirements.

My very first glimpse of North Korea was in 2008, from the South Korean side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). I’d just had the living daylights scared out of me by the US soldiers at the Joint Security Area, the only spot on the border where soldiers from the North and South face each other directly. The briefing by the US soldiers just before you enter the area makes you think that any sudden move might lead to an international incident. Oh, and you might be shot by the North Koreans. I spent the whole visit moving with exaggerated slowness and slightly giggly with nervousness. My eyes kept on scanning the austere and ominously quiet North Korean side, with its single border guard, wondering if any outsiders ever got to see that country, other than as some indistinct landscape viewed from across kilometres of minefields and bunkers.
View of the DMZ from North Korea.
Six years later, I was clowning around with the North Korean border guards on the other side of the Joint Security Area, completely spoiling the view for the tour group on the South Korean side, who no doubt had just had the living daylights scared out of them by some US soldier.

Not only can outsiders get to see North Korea, it’s actually EASY to get in. Thousands of people visit the country every year. There were a dozen on my tour alone, and we spent the five days of the trip playing tag with two buses carrying about 50 more.

View from a bridge in Pyongyang

How does it work? 

Step 1: Find a company that offers tours to North Korea.

Step 2: Select what you think is a unique and special tour only they offer.

Step 3: Pay more money than you’re comfortable with.

Step 4: Email a copy of your passport photo page and fill in a form. Make sincere promises that you’re not a journalist.

Step 5: Arrive in Beijing to collect your visa.

Step 6: Go to North Korea.

Although you might not expect it, the official (and only) North Korean tour agency, KITC (Korea International Travel Company), has a very slick and professional operation in place. Every tour comes with at least two local guides, up-market and quiet accommodation, dedicated tour buses, jam-packed itineraries and free meals at local restaurants.

A reunification poster at the DMZ.

And when I say every tour, I mean every tour. No matter which company you use to book your tour, you’ll actually still be doing a set itinerary arranged by KITC, regardless of what you pay.

But it’s worth every penny. KITC makes sure that you have special treatment throughout the trip:

  • You get to jump the line at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, the mausoleum housing the embalmed remains of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, even if you look incredibly scruffy compared to the locals. Hopefully your embarrassment makes up for it.
  • You get your own floor at the hotel. With lights! It’s strange seeing a 47 floor hotel with only one floor lit – yours.
  • You also get to visit local restaurants, even if the entire staff have waited around for you to arrive, and the lights and music only get switched on when you walk through the door. Or after you’ve walked through the door, if you arrive unexpectedly early.

Of course, this special treatment by KITC also means that you’re never quite alone. Anywhere you go, except at the hotel at night, you’ll have (friendly but often insistent) local guides with you. We also had a cameraman with us, who took the official video of the trip, including a rather awkward over-the-shoulder shoot to look at the notebook of yours truly. I have my suspicions about the cameraman’s official job, but thankfully he clearly didn’t get a good shot of what I’d written down.

But the level of scrutiny you receive is far less than what you expect. In fact the whole trip is not quite what you expect. As the tour guides take you from monument (to one of the Kims), to statue (of one or more of the Kims) to museum (dedicated to one of the Kims) you get a strong sense of pride from them. They clearly feel that they are showing you something unique, something that makes the North Koreans stand out as a nation. And these are all certainly very impressive. But each experience contrasts with what you’ve driven past to get there – rundown buildings and aged infrastructure, the many gaunt-looking people in the streets and along the sides of the roads, the empty stores. And you don’t have the heart to tell them that China probably builds something larger and more impressive every week just to have another trashy tourist trap.

Golden statues at Mansudae

Forget about the monuments, statues and museums. That’s not why you go to North Korea. You go to experience the last remnant of the Cold War. You go to see a country that’s stuck in another time. A country where fact is often stranger than fiction, and fiction is taken as fact. The last truly totalitarian state on Earth – but one that welcomes tourists. That’s the strangest part of it all.

It’s also a country that’s rapidly changing, even if you won’t think so from listening to the international media. North Korea is pushing tourism, and creating more special economic zones. It’s opening up, even if they won’t say so officially.

And every tourist visiting the country adds a little more impetus to this change. Sure, my tour fee has probably directly funded the current oppressive regime. But I also know that I interacted with dozens of North Koreans, from a government official on the train to Pyongyang, to a little girl walking down the street who waved at me. And maybe, just maybe, I made a change in how they see the world. I like to think so.

So if you’re even thinking about a trip to North Korea, all I can say is GO NOW! When change comes, it’ll come very, very quickly. And you’ll never get to experience the weirdness of sitting in the most oppressive and isolated country in the world, watching a group of conservatively dressed waitresses busting highly inappropriate dance moves that they could only have seen from bootleg music videos. It’ll blow your mind.

How much will a trip cost?

Be prepared to pay at least €200 per day for any trip to North Korea. You also need to budget €50 for the visa, as well as travel costs to Beijing, which is where most tours depart from. Some tours will also ask for a tip for your tour guides. This is usually around €65, and often well earned by the hard-working guides.

Some tours are more expensive, depending on the company you use to arrange the trip, and some of the add-ons you select.

The tours are all inclusive, which means that all meals, accommodation and transport are included in the tour price. Transport usually includes an overnight train from Beijing to Pyongyang, via Dandong (well worth the effort). If you want to fly to and from Pyongyang, you might have to pay extra, depending on the tour you are taking. This is at least €50 each way, but can be more depending on the tour company, airline and flight availability.

How do I get a visa?

Your tour company will arrange the visa for you. Some companies fold this into the cost of the tour, while others make it a separate cost. In either case it will be around €50, and all you need is a scan of the photo page of your passport, some digital passport photos and a completed application form.

However, if you’re a professional journalist you’ll need to jump through extra hoops, and will probably be denied entry. South Korean citizens aren’t allowed at all, and US citizens can only fly in a fly out, and can’t take the overnight train.

You won’t get a visa or stamp in your passport. Instead you’ll get given a separate “Tourist Card” insert for your passport. If you have a North Korean embassy in your country, you do have the option of getting it stamped into your passport, but it’s not necessary.

Is it safe?

Yes. You don’t have to worry at all about crime while you are there, as you’re monitored the entire time. But, of course, don’t leave your money and valuables lying around unattended. That’s just silly.

And barring a complete breakdown of the security situation in Northeast Asia while you are there, you’ll be able to arrive and depart completely safely.

There have been a few incidents where tourists have been detained by the North Koreans. However, these have been linked to activities that the North Koreans explicitly ban, such as evangelising, or where they suspect that someone had motives for visiting other than tourism. Or if someone did something truly stupid and offended the North Koreans. If you really are in the country just to visit, there’s nothing to worry about. It’s probably the safest you’ll feel anywhere in Asia. Not what you’d expect.

Reading room at the Grand People's Study House

How much spending money should I take with?

Take as much cash as you can afford. Once you are in North Korea, you won’t have access to any outside funds.

There’s not a huge amount to spend your money on, but what there is you probably won’t find anywhere else. And at sometime in the future, I’m pretty sure “Made in North Korea” will become a collector’s item.

And it’s not a place to buy stuff on the cheap. Forget about bargaining. They just don’t understand the concept. You are visiting a communist country, after all.

You’ll also need a little cash to buy drinks and snacks and to do some activities, like bowling, karaoke and what ever else might be on offer. These are generally not that expensive, but you don’t want to miss out because you didn’t bring enough cash.

Take at least €50 per day. Take more if you can afford it. At least you don’t have to worry about anyone pickpocketing you!

Foreigners can use Euros, Chinese Yuan and US Dollars. I found that the North Koreans were most interested in US dollars, and that got a better exchange rate. However, I used Chinese Yuan, and I found it easier to use this for smaller transactions, and it was easy to get change.

If you take Euros and US Dollars, take a range of notes, with as many smaller notes as you can manage. Most transactions will be small amounts.

Tour prices compared

You will need to make use of a foreign tour company to arrange your trip to North Korea. Most are based in China. However, as mentioned earlier, no matter which company you use you’ll still end up going on a standard KITC tour.

The difference is in price and the size of the tour group you join. Below are some of the more prominent companies, with average tour prices:

  • Young Pioneer Tours (www.youngpioneertours.com): A relative newcomer to the industry, but fast becoming a major player. Young Pioneer Tours specialises in small group tours, and has a reputation for arranging unusual and unscheduled side trips for its tour groups in North Korea that the larger tour companies don’t offer. This is the company that I used, and it was excellent and far cheaper than any of the other companies, with a smaller tour group and more personal attention. Average price: Around €200 per day.
  • Koryo Tours (http://www.koryogroup.com/travel_tours.php): This is perhaps the most well-known company offering trips to North Korea. They have a range of tours, but these tend to be in large groups. Average price: Around €300 per day.
  • Uri Tours (http://uritours.com/): Uri Tours vies with Koryo Tours for reputation and recognition, and offers a similar range of tours, again in larger groups than Young Pioneer Tours. Average price: Around €350 per day.

Accommodation

All foreign tour groups can only stay in certain hotels, and you don’t have much choice. However, the standard is approximately the same in each, which is about 3-stars equivalent.

The facilities vary at each. At the Yanggakdo Hotel, for example, there is a spa, swimming pool, karaoke bar and a bowling alley. Pop around if you are there. The staff will be grateful for something to do.

Best time to visit

The best time to visit North Korea is during the Arirang Mass Games, which are normally held from July to September. However, 2014 is the first time in eight years that the games won’t be held, and it’s uncertain when they will be held again.

Summer is normally a good time to visit the country, as the locals are more outdoors and you get to interact with them. However, it is also the busiest tourist season. Spring and Autumn can be pleasant (I went in mid-March, and it was great), but the weather is unpredictable. Winter is very cold, but there will be few tourists.

Must-have itinerary

The vast majority of the trips offered are to Pyongyang, the capital, with some side trips from there. In recent times KITC has also started offering trips to other parts of the country. All the itineraries, though, are subject to the vagaries of the North Korean government, and whether some or other attraction happens to be open at that time.

Try and choose an itinerary that at least includes the following:

  • Mansudae, where the large golden statues of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il can be seen.
  • Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where the embalmed remains of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il are on display.
  • The DMZ
  • A trip on the Pyongyang subway. A definite must, with its impressive platforms and old East German subway carriages. You also get to interact with the locals a bit.
  • Revolutionary Martyrs’ Cemetery, where the bronze busts of various struggle heroes are on display. This also has impressive views of Pyongyang, on a good day.
  • Juche Tower. Spend the extra €5 to go to the top for excellent views of Pyongyang.
  • Pyongyang Film Studios. How often do you get to stroll around bizarre interpretations of street scenes from around the world?
  • Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum. One of the more impressive war museums. It’s worth it just to experience the North Korean version of the causes of the Korean War.
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Less for more: FNB and the decline in club member benefits in South Africa

FNB Slow Lounge

I’m a happy customer of FNB. I’ve tried out all the big banks in South Africa, and so far FNB has delivered the best and most innovative products for me, and hasn’t treated me as a necessary evil. Yet. Unlike some banks I’ve been with (I’m looking at you Standard Bank).

I was very pleased when a year or so back I qualified to get access to FNB’s Slow Lounge. For those who don’t know, it’s a business class lounge for domestic flights at several major airports in South Africa. Some FNB customers get free access depending on the type of account they have with the bank.

Not that I fly frequently, mind you. But when I do I like to have access to the Slow Lounge, where you can get something to eat or drink, grab something to read or just sit on a comfy chair while waiting for your flight.

When I first joined, you could get unlimited access to the Slow Lounge. Then in 2011 FNB changed this to a limited number of free visits per month – four during off-peak times, and two during peak times. This didn’t sit so well with me, but since I generally don’t travel that much it didn’t make much of a difference. I also understood why FNB was doing this – its Slow Lounges were popular, and were becoming overcrowded with riffraff account holders (like me), especially during peak times.

However, very recently FNB changed its benefits again. Now not only are your visits limited, but you also need to swipe R5 000.00 per month at retailers to qualify. Now that’s not cool. Most of my spending is online. I seldom go around swiping that much at retailers without good reason. And certainly not every month. It seems an arbitrary amount.

So basically I no longer qualify for this Slow Lounge benefit, even though I have one of the more expensive accounts at FNB.

You’ll see on various forums, like the one linked above, that this change has made quite a few people unhappy. However, I do understand FNB’s position – it’s offering a good product at a good price, and its customers are happy and making use of this benefit! This is unacceptable!

What really irks me is how common this is. Companies in South Africa have a history of doing this – offering great “special” benefits to clients who purchase specific accounts or club memberships, and then slowly whittling these benefits away over time.

Discovery did this with its Vitality benefits, especially the free gym membership at Virgin Active a few years ago. This membership is no longer free, and in fact the minimum number of visits per year to keep this membership recently increased by 50%. Discovery is especially bad – a few years ago it also had a great discount on flights with certain airlines. This used to be on the full ticket price (taxes and levies included), but now is only on the flight ticket price, even though the real costs come in with taxes and levies.  So same benefit, but not quite as great as before.

FNB is not alone here, but it does run a risk. It’s drawn in a lot of new customers with all these extra benefits it’s been offering, but now it risks chasing these same customers away through what can be seen as sneaky reductions in benefits.

Personally, I understand what FNB is struggling with – trying to keep a great benefit available to its best customers, but still offering it in some form to a much, much larger group of customers who were originally promised the access to the same benefit, but who don’t bring in as much cash.

But FNB’s approach has much to be desired. It did not communicate this change in benefit very well, and quite a few people have used the Slow Lounge without knowing that they no longer qualified for the free access.

How FNB could have done this better

FNB – here are some ideas for ways you could have managed this change in benefit without making us all feel done in:

1) Limit the benefit to a number of peak/off-peak hours

Give your customers a number of hours (broken down into peak/off-peak) in the Slow Lounge that they can use per calendar month. This number of hours would increase based on your account type and spending patterns.

So someone who only has a few minutes before a flight can still pop in for a quick cup of coffee, but not use up a full visit as under the current system, while someone who has hours to wait before a flight doesn’t just sit around taking up space.

This would keep the numbers down during all hours of the day, and would be an easy way to incentivise customers. You could, for example, offer extra hours at the Slow Lounge for customers who frequently purchase flights on their FNB accounts, or who frequently purchase forex, or who pay for holidays or accommodation or rental vehicles using their FNB cards. So offering a great benefit to those most likely to use this Slow Lounge (and who would appreciate it the best, too).

If this doesn’t work for you, here’s another option based on the current system:

2) Limited number of visits, increasing based on spending

Give every FNB client who qualified for Slow Lounge access under the old criteria a limited number of Slow Lounge visits per month. Let’s say that this is four visits per month (off-peak or peak). They can increase the number of free visits to the Slow Lounge if they, for example, spend over R5 000.00 at retailers by swiping their card, or by purchasing additional FNB products, or, like the example above, spending on travel-related items on their account.

Again, this is a great way to incentivise your clients to spend more using your accounts while not excluding your existing ones.

FNB, this seems like a missed opportunity. However, there’s still time to go back, give all the qualifying account holders at least some free visits and encourage them to spend more using your accounts to get additional benefits. You’ll make them happy and encourage people to use your accounts.