An Israeli travel agency is offering organized tours of North Korea. Tarbutu, a subsidiary of Rimon Tours, has already sent three groups to the isolated Asian nation – all of which have returned safely to Israel.
Once the firm found that the option of traveling to the country piqued the interests of Israelis, it filed an official request with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's regime to grant Israeli citizens tourist visas.
Until very recently, Israelis could only attain visas through Chinese tourist agencies and mediators who maintain close ties to the reclusive country. But now, Tarbutu has forged a relationship with a North Korean tourist company which works with Korea International Travel Company, the country’s official travel agency. Thanks to these ties, Tarbutu now holds the exclusive rights on issuing tourist visas for Israel. All visits are coordinated with administrative organs in the capital Pyongyang.
According to the Foreign Ministry, there is no official issue with Israelis visiting the country, though there is a special warning for professional journalists and those with South Korean citizenship – two groups on which the oppressive regime puts strict tourist visa restrictions.
A statement published by the Foreign Ministry this week however advised Israelis against travelling to North Korea. The ministry said that the "State of Israel does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea," and stressed that it will not be able to assist Israelis require any assistance while travelling there.
“North Korea is a closed country, disconnected from the rest of the world, and we don’t know a lot more than we do know," says Haim Peres, Tarbutu’s CEO. "Until now, only about 100 Israelis have traveled to North Korea.” The majority of tourists to the country come from China – about 95 percent, Peres adds.
Israeli Eli Amir, who travelled to North Korea in September in the first such organized trip, recounted his trip for Reshet Bet radio.
"There was fear, there was concern, but when we got there it turned out that it was all for nothing," he said. "When we got there, everything was outstanding. A spacious airport, all the nice things, a duty free and everything, but there weren’t any passengers. It was only us. We later learned that only North Koreans travel to North Korea, and only North Korean planes."
"At the passport control there was a bit of a problem and some palpitations, because they took all of our books, checked all of our electronic devices, confiscated our binoculars and returned them only later.
"But when we left the airport and started travelling in the country, it was an amazing thing, completely, completely, completely not what we thought," he said.
"In the capital you don’t see any oppression, any poverty, any dirt. You see a subway, electric buses, traffic, you see everything there." But, he added, in the countryside things looked different and poor.
"The problem is that they take you where they want. And where they want is a cult of personality, I've never seen such a thing," Amir said.
As for tips for future travelers: "There's one thing you shouldn’t do – don’t get clever," he concluded.
The company is expected to launch a number of group tours to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The price for an 11-day, all-inclusive trip to the country starts at $3,850. A 12-day tour costs $4,050.