When hordes of Chinese tourists descend on Pyongyang, there’s a
mixed reaction from North Korea’s tourism workers: they are
pleased their No 1 visitors will be splurging on everything from
souvenirs to casinos, but then there’s a furtive sigh of:
“Here we go again.”
Bad behaviour by mainland Chinese tourists in Hong Kong to Egypt, Paris to the Maldives, is well documented. But breaches of etiquette in the notoriously strict Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are sometimes more obtuse.
Simon Cockerell, of Koryo Tours, which specialises in travel to the reclusive socialist state, cites as an example mainland tourists throwing sweets at North Korean children “like they’re feeding ducks”. “The North Koreans think that’s undignified
and offensive,” he says.
In another faux pas: “If mainland tourists go to a school performance,
they don’t have any qualms about rushing to the stage and picking
up a child for photos.”
Cockerell says such behaviour highlights the need for what the
Chinese National Tourism Administration calls an “improved
degree and level of civilised behaviour” by its tourists.
Gareth Johnson, founder of Young Pioneer Tours, has
encountered many mainland tour groups during the more
than 40 visits he has made to North Korea while escorting
young and Western budget travellers.
He describes a “stereotypical” mainland tour group: “A hundred
people following a flag, all wearing caps and just being bussed
about, largely to gift stores.”
“And they don’t really know anything about the country,” says
Johnson, even though the two countries are neighbours and
allies, and many mainland visitors have “grown up in a similar
Says Cockerell: “The mainlanders are just more forward… they
just tend to be a lot louder.” When faced with the reserved and
conservative North Koreans, it can result in a “clash of
All this is minor, of course, compared with those who break away
from a tour group and go poking about Pyongyang or distribute
religious literature to locals, as a minority of Western visitors
have done. Such behaviour has grave consequences not
only for the tourist but for tour guides and agencies.
Johnson says when people ask sensitive questions – short of
speaking ill of the regime – “the worst thing that can happen
is that the Koreans feel uncomfortable and stop talking. To
get into big trouble, you’ve got to be quite stupid”.
“It doesn’t really annoy the North Koreans, but I think it gets
them down a bit,” Cockerell says. “Chinese people in general
are perhaps more willing to voice their opinions on something
without really thinking through how it will be taken by their hosts.
“Most Western travellers at least are aware of the sensitivities
there and are probably less quick to offend their hosts. Most of
the tour guides I know, they joke about Chinese tour groups’
behaviour. But it doesn’t matter as they’ve seen it all before.”
But Cockerell says it has had a bearing on the level of
access afforded to Chinese tour groups. He says only select
Chinese can go to Mount Paektu, known for its volcanic lake
and as the birthplace of late leader Kim Jong-il, while the
mausoleum of Kim and his father, Kim Il-sung, are absent
from their itineraries.
Conversely, there are places long accessible to the Chinese
that have only recently been opened to other tourists, such
as the border city of Sinuiju.
Like in any other country, cultural misunderstandings are
a natural consequence of letting more tourists into one’s
country, according to Johnson and Cockerell.
Tourism has boomed since Beijing approved North Korea
as a destination for its citizens in June 2008, and a
memorandum of understanding was signed in October 2009.
Visitors had already been allowed special permits and
tour agencies were already bringing tourists, but
China-North Korean tourism officially began in earnest
in April 2010.
That month, more than 400 people rode on the first
Chinese tourist train to enter North Korea for a four-day tour.
The Chinese tourism office says 237,400 Chinese travelled
to North Korea last year, 22.5 per cent more than in 2011,
but a North Korean tourism official has claimed as many as
700,000 came in 2010-11.
North Korean’s disdain for some of the behaviour of their
northern visitors might be part of an underlying resentment,
according to Barbara Demick, Beijing bureau chief of
The Los Angeles Times and author of the seminal book
on North Korean life Nothing to Envy.
“[North Koreans] always thought of themselves as
richer than the Chinese or having a purer brand of socialism,
and they are now very jealous of China’s wealth,” she says.
“I don’t see tensions, but I would think that the Chinese
are even less popular as individuals than the Americans. I think
because the Chinese are close by, while the Americans are
abstract – they’re far away and there’s a lot of propaganda
While Chinese tourists’ “misbehaviour” might not be
causing too many headaches in North Korea, cultural
sensitivity is an issue that Beijing is seeking to address.
“With the rapid growth of China’s outbound tourists,
a few who are travelling abroad have shown uncivilised
behaviour and language, which had an impact on the
country’s international image,” the Chinese National
Tourism Administration says.
The administration, with the help of the Foreign Ministry,
has launched awareness and education campaigns
that promote, among other things, “civilised tourism and
There is limited data on what percentage of
North Korea’s economy is propped up by tourism.
But there is no doubt it is having a positive impact on
infrastructure in border cities and supports jobs
elsewhere in the country where there are very
few other opportunities to make money.
So until every Chinese abroad is on their
best behaviour, North Koreans will continue
to grin and bear it.
“Mostly, the reaction from North Koreans is a s
ort of roll of the eyeballs and a ‘What can I do?’
shrug,” says Cockerell.
Additional reporting by Laura Zhou