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