When the UN’s World Tourism Organization released its tourism findings for 2018, those countries most popular with holidaymakers wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow. Compiling the number of foreign tourists each country received, it was hardly a surprise when countries like France, Spain and the United States of America each attracted more than 70 million tourists last year. With golden beaches, historical landmarks and large transport hubs, it’s easy to understand which places prove most popular with foreign travellers.
It seems that the romanticism of Paris, the Gaudí-dotted streets of Barcelona and the bright lights of New York prove more of a draw than the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, the ancient sites of Iraq or the seclusion of North Korea. But, for those intrepid travellers keen to stray off the beaten-track, such countries provide an allure that those at the top of the WTO’s rankings can’t provide. And for those tour operators specialising in such places, that niche market of travellers who’d rather spend their day hiking in the remote mountains ranges of Afghanistan than lying by the pool in France prove invaluable.
“I think the motivations are the same as anybody that is going to travel to another country, to get some sort of cultural investment”, explains James Willcox, co-founder of adventure travel specialists Untamed Borders. “For some people it’s the food. For some people it’s the architecture. For some people it’s the culture. For some people it’s just seeing what it’s like, exploring the smells and sounds of walking through a bazaar or a mountain range — just being there.”
That desire to seek out those roads-less-traveled is what Willcox sees as a factor to those who decide to forgo a trip to the Mediterranean and instead join one of Untamed Border’s expeditions. “I know it’s a general term, but I think a lot of people search for an authentic experience”, states Willcox. “An experience not viewed through the prism of tourism.”
Founded in 2006 by himself and Kausar Hussein, two then adventure guides who met in the mountains of Afghanistan, Untamed Borders has spawned into one of the most reputable travel companies specialising in ‘adventure travel’, with an emphasis on Central Asia.
Untamed Borders now guide, or have guided, in around 30 different countries. They were the first international company to run trips to Chechyna and Dagestan since the conflicts there, as well as being the first to organise trips to Mogadishu and Somaliland.
Such is the volatile security situation in some of the countries Untamed Borders operate in, there is a relative urgency to visit certain areas sooner rather than later. “Maybe tomorrow, some of the places we work in, we won’t be able to work in them again for ten years”, explains Willcox. “There are parts of Afghanistan which we can’t access anymore.” In previous years they were able to guide people through the historic Khyber Pass from Pakistan into Afghanistan, but have been unable to do so for ten years.
One of the appeals of Untamed Borders lies in their ability to provide an operational framework for those wishing to travel to places with unstable security contexts, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. Infrastructure problems, or lack of, in certain countries are also where Untamed Borders can be of help. “It’s not just about security concerns, it’s also about logistical issues”, Willcox says. In many of the areas they operate in there is little, if any, infrastructure to rely on. In these places, they work directly with individuals. “We can call on reliable and trusted people — from family, friend or clan networks — if we need some support.”
One of the country’s where Untamed Borders has one of its largest networks is Afghanistan. It is one the most experienced and extensive operators in the country, and usually runs around 6 different trips a year there. Their Grand Afghan Tour lasts for two weeks and takes intrepid travellers to cities such as Mazar e Sharif, Herat and Kabul while they also run sporting trips to the region. Their Afghan Ski Challenge takes place in the Koh e Baba Mountains near the city of Bamian while their Marathon of Afghanistan trip takes a maximum of 20 runners to the only international marathon in the country. This year’s trip sold out in 30 minutes.
One of the most eye-catching trips Untamed Borders run is their 22-day trek through the Wakhan Corridor, in the northeast of Afghanistan. One of the most remote areas in the world and home to one of the world’s last nomadic cultures, the trip through the Wakhan provides travellers with the chance to completely go off-the-grid.
“It was never a secret that the Wakhan was a great place to go hiking”, explains Willcox. “It wasn’t a complete step into the unknown as there had been a tourism development project from 2005 to 2008.” Untamed Borders ran their first trip through the Wakhan in 2009, organising a trip every year since.
As well as their sporting-based trips to Afghanistan, Untamed Borders runs similar trips to the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan. Considered by the Kurdish people as one of the four regions of greater Kurdistan, it’s known for it’s history, rugged landscape and more recently, its close proximity to once ISIS-held Mosul. Untamed Borders run an annual Ski trip to the region, part of the Choman Winter Festival, as well as bringing a group to participate in the Erbil Marathon.
Erbil, the capital of the region, may not be on the lips of most holidaymakers but it comes with a budding reputation and an ancient history. Human settlement in Erbil dates to the 5th millennium BC, which makes the city one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the world. It’s historic citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, peers over the bustling city center.
The city, however, has made efforts to have eyes on the future. Erbil International Airport opened in 2010 with regular flights to London, Dubai and Frankfurt while select nationals, including those from the European Union and the US, can receive 30-days of visa free travel. The city was designated as the Arab Tourism Capital by the Arab Council of Tourism in 2014, while the global database network Numbeo listed Erbil as one of the top five safest cities in the world in 2018.
Tourism numbers to the region, while stile comparatively minute, slowly rise. One recipient of the increased numbers is local guide and tour operator, Karwan Wahed.
Born in Erbil and father to two young sons, Wahed has been guiding small groups around the Kurdistan region for six years. “It was just Erbil at the start”, explains Wahed. “It started with friends and expats, then someone helped me make a website. The first customers were a couple from Australia, then more and more people got in touch.”
His one-man business, sometimes aided by his father as a driver, provides tailor made trips around the region. Ideally suited for those travellers on a budget and keen for flexibility, Wahed’s tours are a unique experience. But if had not been for a slice of luck, Wahed may have never moved into the tourism industry.
“I was just a simple taxi driver in the city”, recalls Wahed. “My English was very basic — I could only say hi, hello and goodbye.” While taking an expat to collect groceries he was asked; do you want to be my personal driver? I can teach you English. Wahed learnt the majority of his English through him and eventually was encouraged to become a guide.
What started small in Erbil slowly grew into one of Kurdistan’s most known and trusted tour operators as word of mouth spread and Trip Advisor reviews increased. Over the last two years, he estimates he guided 200 people each year. The strength of Wahed’s tours is that rather than travelling round the region as part of a set itinerary, he can offer a tailor made trip for a fraction of the price.
When asked what would be a typical itinerary, he says it has hard to give one. “It depends on a clients reasons for travelling to Kurdistan”, he explains. “Is it for the nature, culture, history or religion?” Typically, however, he tries to take people through the region in an order that he believes to be best. “I often start with nature and history, then culture and religion, before finishing in the city of Sulaymaniyah.”
However it is Lalish, home to the holiest temple in the Yazidi faith, which Wahed believes to be an essential visit for any traveller. But why Lalish? “Lalish is not everywhere — it is unique and special to Kurdistan”, he explains. “There is history in Germany and nature you can see in the UK — each nation has its own thing. But Lalish you cannot see anywhere else in the world.”
There is a story and lesson to be told and learnt throughout Kurdistan, believes Wahed. “In Lalish, you can learn about the story of the Yazidis and when you visit the former frontlines you can learn more about the Peshmerga. When you visit Saddam’s palace you can see how he protected his power and at Halabja, where his gas attacks killed thousands of Kurds, you can appreciate our resilience.”
Tourism to the region has helped build Wahed’s business, and on a broader level he believes that it has brought with it prosperity. “Tourism brings in money and jobs to people in Kurdistan”, he says. “Hotels have guests, restaurants have customers and I have a job as a guide.” The small but significant tourism inflow of curious travellers to Kurdistan has brought about opportunities to the region, as well as allowed visitors to see and experience it with their own eyes.
Such intrepid tourism to Iraqi Kurdistan is more clear-cut and transparent than somewhere like the hermit kingdom of North Korea. Rough estimates put the number of tourists going there at 100,000 a year, but only approximately 5,000 of that is made up of western tourists with the rest coming from China. It was once an aim of the Kim Jong-un regime to hit two million foreign visitors by 2020, but that target remains a way off.
Tourism to the country remains small due to its reputation and the process by which you can enter it. Those keen to visit must do so though an approved tour company who will deal with visa applications, itinerary, debriefing and ensure that you are minded throughout the trip. One such company is Koryo Tours — one of the oldest and leading specialists in travel to North Korea.
“We’re a small company so it’s a bit all total football”, explains its General Manager, Simon Cockerell. The company was established in 1993 by two Brits who travelled to Pyongyang after meeting a North Korean native in Beijing. “There were both running a bar and they got to know this guy through an amateur football league”, explains Cockerell. “They were told they could be taken to Pyongyang, and they both said — no one is going there, we will be billionaires! That of course never transpired, but it did lay the groundwork for the growth of this industry.”
North Korea is far removed from your usual holiday spot, but when asked if a trip to the country can be described as ‘intrepid’ Cockerell believes it’s more faceted than that. “It’s intrepid and it’s not”, he states. “As you know, because of the nature of how it’s structured, there are many restrictions in place.”
I visited Pyongyang in 2015 and am privy to the extent at which you are closely guided by the North Korean guides. “There’s a point where it feels almost like a school trip”, says Cockerell. “You have guides with you at all times, you don’t need to think about what time you have to get up or where you’re going to eat for dinner.”
It’s nature and reputation, rather than its geography or terrain is what draws people to seek it out. “It’s intrepid because it’s unusual and there’s a process to getting there — it’s not France or somewhere like that”, Cockerell explains. “But it’s not dangerous and it’s not particularly rugged.”
What then is the pull of North Korea to the roughly 5,000 western tourists that choose to spend their time, money and holiday there? Cockerell believes the reasons for going there vary. Some go for the Instagram likes, while others go just to tick a box. But most people who go make an active choice to go there. “The world is big, you could have gone anywhere in the world. Those that go made a specific choice to go there.”
Koryo have dealt with the same travel company based in North Korea for years — ensuring a smooth working relationship with the side over in Pyongyang. “We’ve dealt with the same people for decades. We get to know them and so have additional flexibility, because we have trust with them”, details Cockerell. “They trust that we know what we’re doing. But they’re not the authorities, they don’t make the rules but have to work within the rules that are set.”
My visit to Pyongyang saw us take an eight-hour train journey from the Chinese border city of Dandong, trudging through rural North Korea before arriving into the capital at dusk. The capital, thanks to its infrastructure and comparative ease-of-access, is the main destination for most foreign tourists. “Pyongyang is usually the start and finish point of any tour”, explains Cockerell. “It has the international airport and it’s the terminus of the international railway.”
Koryo offers travellers a unique and exclusive tour through the capital’s streets by organising a group to take part in the annual Pyongyang Marathon. “It’s the single biggest attraction these days”, Cockerell says of the marathon. The marathon has been running for near 30 years, but only open to foreigners for the last five. Koryo has been granted exclusivity on the event, meaning only those who sign up through the organisation, or one of their approved companies, can take part. “It’s a chance for people to go around Pyongyang by themselves — it’s great opportunity to mingle with people.”
When asked whether those who choose to visit the state are indirectly supporting the regime, Cockerell is adamant in his belief. “I mean that’s absurd, it’s complete nonsense”, he says. “Giving free reign to the North Korean media with no pushback? That’s supporting the regime.” The majority of what North Koreans hear and know about foreigners is what comes from their state media, which is often untrue, and almost always negative. It’s important for Cockerell that an authentic, positive image of foreigners is portrayed instead. “It’s almost a responsibility”, he says. “They say when you go abroad you are an ambassador for your country — instead, in this case, you are an ambassador for the world that is not North Korea.”
Travelling overseas is an important and influencing ability that should be protected and advanced. “It’s small and incremental, no one is going to claim it is a magic bullet”, says Cockerell, referring to tourism into North Korea. “But you should go because it’s important to know and learn more about other places and to develop a more nuanced understand of it. These things are beneficial.”
Cockerell sees that it is necessary to see places such as North Korea first hand, to separate fact from fiction and truth from hearsay. “It’s all too easy to sit back and go — North Korea is bad — and leave it like that”, he says. “The fact is there is 25 million people living there and 24.99 million have nothing to do with that and the regime.”
Travel allows for the enjoyment and appreciation of different lands and cultures, and more often than not, helps foster understanding. Whether it be strolling along Paris’s boulevards or sipping a café con leche somewhere in Spain, or anywhere in between.
Travel to those places ‘off-the-beaten-track’ may not be as prominent as other exploits, but for those willing to seek out lands further afield it may bring about just as much enjoyment — and its importance may be even more. For if it’s trekking in Afghanistan, visiting the ancient sites of Kurdistan or sipping soju in Pyongyang — when you leave the door ajar to those places in between, it slowly starts to open.
Untamed Borders run annual trips to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraqi Kurdistan and many more destinations. Their adventure trips, and bespoke tours, can be found here.
An expert and local of Iraqi Kurdistan, Karwan Wahed offers a range of tailored tours around the region. Accomodating a range of budgets, his company website can be found here.
Koryo Tours are one of the leading and most experienced tour operators specialising in North Korea. Their range of trips, including the Pyongyang Marathon, can all be found on their website.