Agents in North Korea, Iran and Bhutan (travel agents, that is)

Chicago Seminars attendee Ditchthecube writes:

I’m writing to ask you about which travel agencies you used in North Korea and Iran and if you’d recommend them. My understanding is that Bhutan also requires such arrangements, I’d be interested to hear your experience there regarding advance planning.

With photo albums like Road Trip to the Arctic Ocean, Ditchthecube is a traveler after The Rapid Traveler’s heart.

Disclaimer: there are moral considerations to all travel and destinations like North Korea and Iran are controversial. A debate can be had another day about isolation versus interaction, but for the purposes here,  each traveler must decide themselves on their travel, and take moral responsibility for any positive or negative consequences. The Rapid Traveler has visited both countries.

Fiercely independent travelers being required to work with travel agents is a recipe for friction, but for some countries there is no viable alternative. North Korea requires any foreigner to work with a partner agency of its national tourist organization. Bhutan, though pursuing happiness rather than misery, has a similar requirement (SAARC nationalities have more freedom). Iran has a widely varying regime and many nationalities are allowed freedom of movement in the country, but US citizens are required to travel on a pre-approved itinerary with a registered guide.

Future posts will go into detail on the process for traveling to each country, but the starting place is research well in advance. The Rapid Traveler was able to put his North Korea trip together in a month, but the process for Iran took two months. Bhutan’s process can be expedited but the challenge is finding space on Druk Air.

Here are the agencies that The Rapid Traveler chose. These trips all occurred prior to the establishment of this blog and The Rapid Traveler will receive no compensation from these agencies for mention here.

North Korea:

It is critical to understand that every agent works with North Korea’s national tourist organization. The best agents can work wonders, but they are at the mercy of the North Korean government. Not everything will be possible and things can and do change without explanation or opportunity to appeal. Some agencies include their own guides on the trip but every group, once in North Korea, is managed by local guides from the national tourist organization. All part of the package.

Koryo Tours is the leader in North Korean travel and their website provides invaluable planning information. They arguably have done more to improve North Korea’s relations with the world than any other actor, from their exchanges to their films. They get access to regions and activities that no other agency can reach.

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Miss Kim and Mr Kim, guides

That being said, none of that comes cheap and The Rapid Traveler wanted a basic, low-cost short

trip as he had only four days at the time due to work commitments. He ended up working with Tommy Li at Asia Live,

and was fully satisfied. At the last minute the North Korean government closed one special attraction for maintenance and Tommy made heroic efforts to arrange a visit to the grounds despite the closure.

Both agencies are based in Beijing, which is the only place with regular flight service open to tourists. The visa is issued on a separate document, which travelers do not get to keep, so no need to be sending a passport to Beijing.

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Bowling with Mr Kim

Iran:

The Rapid Traveler had a difficult search. Many agencies he contacted were not responsive.  He ended up working with Pars Tourist Agency and can recommend it with reservations. His main interest being history, and time limited, he chose their eight-day Glance of Persia tour for covering the major sites and being low cost.  Most other agencies run even longer tours to cover the key historic destinations.

The visa was a big mess that was only resolved 36 hours prior to departure. Long story short, the foreign ministry in Iran was sending the approval to the wrong fax number at the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, D.C., which handles Iran’s consular matters in the US, and it took many calls to Pars and the Pakistani Embassy to uncover the problem and resolve it. It would have been nice if Pars could have handled this better.

The other problems were perhaps as much for The Rapid Traveler to blame himself as Pars. He likes to cover a lot of ground and found the tour pace slow, his other two groupmates preferring hours with the hookah rather than seeing the country. So, he got antsy and in the afternoons and evenings kept breaking away to do his own thing. Also, the low cost meant some corners were cut in transportation, and The Rapid Traveler failed to fully clarify that prior to the trip. Overall he would have been better off paying extra to be a group of one to have his preferred pace.

Bhutan:

There are now hundreds of Bhutanese travel agents, and with the government setting prices, they must compete on quality. The Rapid Traveler talked to numerous travelers during a morning rain delay for his departure flight and complaints were few. Bhutan is a magical destination and few leave unhappy. The Rapid Traveler chose Lhomen Travels, Tours & Treks because of its reputation for willingness to serve solo travelers. Karchung Wangchuk, Lhomen’s managing director, was wonderfully accommodating of The Rapid Traveler’s fast itinerary and the guide and driver were wonderful gents.

Lonely Planet Bhutan has a great index of alternative tour operators. Again, the prices are fixed by the government, so find an operator that is responsive to your needs and head out there!

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Bhutanese tour guides taking a break

Readers, have you visited North Korea, Iran or Bhutan? Share your experiences and tips for others!

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  • Thanks for the response!

  • LIH Prem

    I love that picture of you and Mr Kim at the bowling alley 🙂

    -David

  • Petri

    We went to Bhutan a few years ago, everything was arranged very smoothly by Bhutan Expeditions via e-mail. We flew in/out of Nepal as part of our other travels and had a Dragonair flight from there, also booked by Bhutan Expeditions. For most part we stayed at the appointed hotels but for a few nights on Paro had a more luxurious choice — it was fine but I would have enjoyed more places like we had on other nights. They really took good care of us, arranged ad-hoc things, etc.

    Better half is going to Cuba in June (due the salsa dancing we’ve been there too many times) I thought I’d go to North Korea. Planning to book the trip in a few days for early June.

    Was it ok to do individual trip just by yourself?

  • @Petri – thanks for sharing your Bhutan experience.

    For North Korea, individual was great, not much more expensive than a group and allowed as much freedom and time with the guides as possible.

  • Petri

    We bought a few paintings from Bhutan, not from the shops part of our tour but once after a lunch we had some spare time and strolled down the street. The shopkeeper was very keen to do business, give discount and sell them event when the credit card charge didn’t quite work out 🙂 — I guess the commission to guides is pretty steep.

    Good to hear that the individual tours are fine, some comments have said that it helps to have a western guide in the group. I’m trying to convince couple of friends living in Hong Kong to join the trip. I guess giving some gifts to the guides and driver at the beginning of the trip could help to make sure rest of the trip goes smoothly 🙂 Are they allowed to do anything extra if one is faster-than-average going through the sights?

  • @Petri – I did not go to North Korea to spend time with Western guides, but I imagine they can help smooth over issues. I wanted to experience the country through local guides, and anyway, I cannot think of a time, of the few when I have used guides, that I have not gone local.

    The key value the guides may add is actually before the trip. Once in North Korea it is extremely difficult to make any changes to the itinerary. Approvals must be sought and nothing is guaranteed. This does not prevent the authorities from making last-minute changes to your itinerary.

    So, make sure to plan your requests out well in advance, be very explicit, and get written agreement on the itinerary you want.

    As for gifts, I came in loaded with Johnny Walker, Dunhill and cosmetics kits. Worked wonders.

  • Petri

    Of course. I meant that the guides are obviously locals (like always in DPRK) but there will be a staff member from the tour company in the group as well to pull the strings while there. But of course the contacts with the locals are the best thing.

    The itineraries are surprisingly the same with all the companies, even when doing group or individual tour 🙂

    I decided to join a small group instead, just make life a bit easier. So in about 2.5 weeks I shall be landing to Pyongyang. Not bad considering that last weekend I started looking into frequent flyer flights to Singapore or Hong Kong, with an idea to get a cheap flight to Australia for a lunch.