When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

food / travel

North Korea Turns To Spain For Tourism Inspiration

In between nuclear tests, Pyongyang is investing massively in its tourism infrastructure. A delegation visited Spain last month to study their resorts.

Beach of Palma the Mallorca, Spain
Beach of Palma the Mallorca, Spain
Sandrine Morel

MADRID — The affair of Otto Warmbier, the young American tourist who died last month after spending a year and a half as a prisoner in North Korea, has certainly not helped the country's image.

But North Korea has not given up trying to portray itself as a prime tourism destination. On June 15, just three days after it returned Warmbier to the United States in a coma, Pyongyang organized a conference in the Spanish capital, Madrid, to highlight the country's touristic attractions.

During a presentation of slides showing amusement parks and mountainous landscapes, the secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization, Taleb Rifai of Jordan, urged Spaniards and other Europeans to travel to North Korea. "The more Europeans go to North Korea, the more North Koreans will be open to the outside world," he said, adding that it would be "irresponsible" to turn down Pyongyang's offer to open up to western tourists.

In between nuclear tests, North Korea continues to inaugurate gigantic touristic infrastructures to attract local and international visitors.

The remarks struck a historical chord in Spain. The country opened up to tourism in the 1960s under Franco's rule, bringing in a whiff of freedom and opening a window onto the world for many Spaniards living under the oppressive dictatorship. Still, in the context of last month's news, Rifai's remarks sounded somewhat surrealistic.

"The United States says my country is closed, that it's hard to get in; but the Americans are the ones closing their doors," said the North Korean ambassador, Kim Hyok-chol. He insisted that his country imposed official guides on travelers not not to supervise them, but because "it is safer and more practical."

A million visitors within five to ten years

In between nuclear tests, North Korea continues to inaugurate gigantic touristic infrastructures to attract local and international visitors. Almost 120,000 tourists visited North Korea in 2014, according to the UNWTO. The country wants to reach one million "within five to ten years' and "is impatient to learn from the Spanish experience," the ambassador said.

Spain is the world's third tourism destination after France and the U.S., with over 76 million visitors in 2016. On June 22, the news website El Confidencial reported on the visit of the delegation of a dozen senior officials and architects from North Korea.

In Barcelona, the visitors were mainly interested in the beaches and the Montjuïc Exhibition Center. Then they continued, like average tourists, to the Marina d'Or holiday resort in Oropesa del Mar, a bit further south on the Valencia coast.

On the small local train, the visitors inquired about the sewage system, leisure activities and guest management, according to amused employees of the huge 6,500-room holiday resort who spoke to the Spanish press.

North Korean want to know how a city that revolves around tourism is managed.

For the Spaniards, the choice was surprising: With its five hotels, two residential buildings, eight amusement parks and seaside resort, Marina d'Or has been accused by ecologists of destroying the landscape. And the company almost went bankrupt, with many unsold apartments lying empty or seized by banks trying to sell them at 70% below market price.

North Korea wants to open a similar resort in 2018, only "slightly bigger," in the Wonsan region, according to its embassy in Madrid.

Inspired by Spain's most built-up coasts

On their way southward, the delegation visited Benidorm, where it met the mayor. "They wanted to know how a city that revolves around tourism was managed," Leire Bilbao, manager of the VisitBenidorm foundation told El País. With 26 skyscrapers along the coast, this city of 700,000 inhabitants became a symbol of mass tourism and a popular destination in the 1960s for the lower and middle class.

The North Koreans visited the tallest hotel in Europe, the 186-meter-hight Bali hotel, but were also interested in camping sites. They were intrigued to know whether the parcels had water and electricity, hot showers and toilets.

The North Korean delegation was also impressed by the Benidorm Terra Mitica, an amusement park that recreates great Mediterranean civilizations, which almost went bankrupt during the 2008 crisis.

Every year, Spain, the Mecca of European mass tourism, has to concern itself with misbehaving visitors. On June 10, some 20 British tourists ran naked through the streets of Calvia, near Palma de Mallorca, blocking traffic, And on July 6, an Irish tourist ended up quadriplegic after jumping from his first-floor hotel room into a children's pool.

But for the Spaniards, nothing was more intriguing at the beginning of tourism season than the delegation of North Koreans looking for inspiration in their most built-up coasts.

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

A Decisive Spring? How Ukraine Plans To Beat Back Putin's Coming Offensive

The next months will be decisive in the war between Moscow and Kyiv. From the forests of Polesia to Chernihiv and the Black Sea, Ukraine is looking to protect the areas that may soon be the theater of Moscow's announced offensive. Will this be the last Russian Spring?

Photo of three ​Ukrainian soldiers in trenches near Bakhmut, Ukraine

Ukrainian soldiers in trenches near Bakhmut, Ukraine

Anna Akage

Ukrainian forces are digging new fortifications and preparing battle plans along the entire frontline as spring, and a probable new Russian advance, nears.

But this may be the last spring for occupying Russian forces.

"Spring and early summer will be decisive in the war. If the great Russian offensive planned for this time fails, it will be the downfall of Russia and Putin," said Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy head of Ukrainian military intelligence.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

Sign up to our free daily newsletter.

Skinitysky added that Ukraine believes Russia is planning a new offensive in the spring or early summer. The Institute for the Study of War thinks that such an offensive is more likely to come from the occupied territories of Luhansk and Donetsk than from Belarus, as some have feared.

Still, the possibility of an attack by Belarus should not be dismissed entirely — all the more so because, in recent weeks, a flurry of MiG fighter jet activity in Belarusian airspace has prompted a number of air raid alarms throughout Ukraine.

Keep reading...Show less

You've reached your limit of free articles.

To read the full story, start your free trial today.

Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.

Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.

Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.

The latest