One of the world’s most secretive destinations just became a lot more accessible.

By Melissa Locker
December 01, 2015
Koryo Tours North Korea
Credit: Courtesy of Koryo Tours

Big news for travelers hoping to see one of the world’s most secretive destinations: you can now tour the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea from the sky. The isolated nation unexpectedly opened its airspace to sightseeing tours earlier this month. Now, tourists hoping to catch a glimpse of the expansive North Korean capital city can book a helicopter tour over Pyongyang.

Simon Cockerell, a general manager at Koryo Tours, told the Daily Mail that almost ten years ago he started asking the North Korean government’s tourism officers to consider allowing sightseeing helicopter tours of Pyongyang, but they had never responded to his repeated requests. However, since coming to power in 2012, the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has tried to draw more visitors to North Korea. In addition to allowing surf vacations, his government recently decided to allow tour operators to take people into Pyongyang airspace.

North Korea does not publish the number of tourists who visit the country, but Reuters reports that an estimated 6,000 Westerners, many coming from tours based in China, visit the country each year. Western travel groups are now offering the aerial sightseeing tours as an optional activity for tour members visiting North Korea, with rates starting at $190.

The inaugural 30-40 minute helicopter tours take groups of sightseers for a circuit over Pyongyang, flying along the Taedong River, and offering views of the city’s May Day stadium, science center, a monument honoring the ruling Workers' Party, and the unfinished and futuristic-looking Ryugyong Hotel, which has been under construction since 1987. Koryo Tours, which offers trips in both a Soviet-era helicopter and an Antonov 24 Soviet propeller passenger plane from the 1950s, recently released some aerial photos of the so-called hermit nation.

Members of the recent Koryo Tour were allowed to take photographs and record videos of the city, save for a few areas between the city and airport that government minders deemed too sensitive to photograph.

While some critics argue that visiting North Korea lends tacit approval to the country’s dictatorship and ignores the government’s well-documented history of human rights abuses, others feel that engaging with the country’s citizens allows for open dialogue that could lead to cultural change.

Companies like Koryo Tours, Uri Tours, and Mountain Travel Sobek offer trips into North Korea from Beijing.