Hotels & Tourist Infrastructure in North Korea
When people think about North Korea and its capital city, the term “tourism hotspot” is unlikely to come to mind. In fact, some people question the morality of visiting the DPRK, and travel companies specializing in tours to North Korea plaster their websites with notices and testimonials assuring curious visitors that the country is completely safe. The purpose of this blog post is not to debate the ethics of North Korean tourism, it is instead to investigate where tourists stay when visiting Pyongyang and other cities, and who occupies Kim Jong-un's many hotels and resorts when no international visitors are allowed to enter the country.
Pyongyang was largely destroyed by bombing during the Korean War, and was rebuilt with financial and technical help from the Soviet Union. The period referred to by Schinz and Deg as the “first phase of construction” included three hotels, but it was not until the 1980s that North Korea began to build high-capacity accommodation for tourists. This was done to prepare for the World Festival of Youth and Students in 1989, and included the Chongnyon Hotel.
The Chongnyon Hotel consists of thirty floors and hundreds of rooms (accounts vary on the exact number,) and includes amenities like an outdoor swimming pool, a massage room, a bar, and a gym. The Korean term “chongnyon/청년" means “youth,” and this hotel is sometimes referred to as the Chongnyon Youth Hotel or hostel. Travel company Young Pioneer Tours assures visitors on their website that two of the hotel’s upper floors were renovated in 2017 and that their “groups are arranged to stay at these nicer rooms of the hotel.” However, guests of the hotel described it as basic in their online reviews and complained of power outages and hard mattresses. Regardless of its appearance and comfort level, the Chongnyon Hotel was the first built specifically with foreign tourists in mind, and it’s also one of the longest-operating hotels in the country.
While the Chongnyon Hotel may have been one of the first hotels in Pyongyang, the largest and most well-visited by international guests is the Yanggakdo International Hotel. This forty-seven-story hotel has approximately one thousand rooms and a revolving restaurant on the top floor. It was built by a French construction company between 1986 and 1992, but did not open until 1995. As this hotel hosts so many international tourists, there is a wealth of information available on the amenities, service, and condition of the rooms available online and the majority of guests stated that their experience was better than expected. However, as pointed out by Li and Ryan in their analysis of western guest experiences at the Yanggakdo International Hotel, these reviews support Loomes and Sugden’s “regret and rejoice” scenario in that “guests “regret” the lack of freedom and the basic nature of the facilities of a “luxury hotel” but “rejoice” in having a special status and thus access to facilities denied to North Korean residents.”
While Pyongyang hosts the most international tourists of any city in North Korea, massive investment into the DPRK’s tourism industry by both the North Korean government and foreign (mostly Chinese) investors led to the construction of a few resorts, including the Masikryong Ski Resort. According to a report by the DPRK Ministry of Sports, it was “very important for the D.P.R.K. to build a ski resort as it is aimed at the improvement of material and cultural lives of the people, and their physical training, by making an effective use of the mountains.” This resort is 180 km away from Pyongyang and about 20 km away from the Wonsan airport, and the report optimistically describes Wonsan as “a cultural port city which is soon to be built as a world-wide resort in the centre.” The report also states that tourists and ski fans from abroad will be able to enjoy the mountain and sea views from the resort, and that it will become the premium winter resort for the North Korean people. Clearly the Masikryong Ski Resort was built to house both international and domestic tourists, but the question remains as to whether or not the DPRK tourism industry can sustain such a massive hotel and make good on the investment.
While North Korea has been closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, up until 2020 the majority of its foreign tourists were Chinese. The DPRK was granted Approved Destination Status from the Chinese government in 2010, which means that Chinese citizens can easily travel to and from the DPRK for leisure purposes. North Korea’s National Directorate of Tourism closely guards official statistics on the number of tourists that visit every year, but Ouellette estimates that 120,000 Chinese tourists and 5,000 Western tourists traveled to North Korea in 2018. This huge disparity is explained by both China’s proximity to the DPRK and the friendly relationship between the two countries.
Although an average of nearly 10,000 tourists were visiting North Korea every month prior to the pandemic, that number becomes less impressive when one considers the details of their tours. According to a survey by Li et al., most Chinese tourists stay in North Korea for less than a week and they rarely make a second trip. These figures hardly justify the estimated U.S. $7.8 billion that Kim Jong-un has invested into hotel renovations and tourism amenities like “ski resorts, a riding club, skating and amusement parks, a new airport, and a dolphinarium.” Kim has particularly focused on renovating the older Pyongyang Hotels like the previously-mentioned Chongnyon Youth Hotel, and Ouellette theorizes that there are multiple reasons for this. In an interview, Ouellette explained that:
“I suspect these construction projects, like many others, are connected to Kim Jong Un's designs for the country’s modernization, which is a feature of his own image branding—which portrays him as a young, vibrant, bold, international, savvy leader of the people dedicated to building a prosperous 'our-style' [North Korean-style] socialist civilization. I believe there are many facets, or motivations, for his focus on development of tourism, recreation, and hospitality facilities and services, which are connected to priorities of his socialist development strategy: to project, under his rule, modernization of the country and a shift from a hardship to leisure society; to keep his youthful ‘soldier-builders’ occupied on constructions that will provide the workspaces to employ some of the loyal middle-class youth in service jobs; to capture a piece, however small, of the global Chinese tourist flows—whose purchasing power reshaped the global tourism industry, or had up until the COVID pandemic—opening wider a source of foreign currency earnings for the regime; to demonstrate urban development beyond Pyongyang, especially in the construct of recreational and leisure facilities for the masses in other cities. All this construction and renovation produces tangible assets in which to propagandize Kim’s modernization efforts toward the construction of a prosperous socialist civilization.”
So, although these hotels serve a purpose to the Kim regime in that they are symbols of Kim Jong-un's success as a leader and of North Korea’s economic success, the question of who occupies these hotels outside of international tourists remains. The number of rooms and facilities combined with the massive investment is not justified by the small number of foreign visitors that traveled to the DPRK before the pandemic, and these hotels are often far too expensive for the average citizen to stay at. “For example, a $1,500 one-night stay in the VIP room of the Hyangsan Hotel would cost nearly 85% of the average annual income of a North Korean.”
Outside of tourist season, North Korea’s many hotels are predominately occupied by domestic visitors, like sports teams or musical performers, who pay heavily subsidized rates. The few foreign visitors that have stayed at these hotels report that they are largely unoccupied, but fully staffed so that guests can enjoy the spa facilities, fitness centers, and restaurants. According to Ouellette, besides Chinese tourists and Chonryon visitors from Japan “some privileged elites may be allowed to use the accommodations. The hotels’ recreation and hospitality facilities, like spas and restaurants, might also serve privileged-class locals (who can pay). I assume a ‘deluxe’ hotel in a remote location like Majon or Mt. Chilbo may not see many guests at all, and none in the winter. However, lodgings at the newly reconstructed Samjiyon County/City, for example, might be allowed to cater to youth and workers groups when they are on study tours to revolutionary sites in the area.”
While North Korea now has more than enough hotels and resorts to cater to any tourists that dare to visit after the borders reopen, a more pressing issue is who will want to visit. While Kim Jong-un may have solved some of the problems related to accommodations for international travelers to the DPRK, there is still much to be done to ensure that visitors feel safe and comfortable enough to spend their vacation (and their money) in North Korea. So, the question remains as to who the visitors will be: Chinese, European, or American. At least a few North Koreans will inevitably occupy the hotels, but without an influx of international tourists most of the rooms will remain empty for the foreseeable future.
*** The views expressed herein belong solely to the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NKR or the Yonsei Institute for North Korean Studies. ***
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