Conflict & Justice

Luring tourists to dangerous countries takes practice


The Egyptians brought their fire to the show.


Andreas Rentz

BERLIN — Greece showed up with a giant faux beach, complete with sand, beach chairs and a huge video screen simulating the country's coastline. The Canary Islands made delicious fresh fruit smoothies. And visitors gawked at the oversized fake Sphinx trucked in by Egypt.

But the tiny stand belonging to North Korea at the ITB tourism trade show in Berlin last weekend had no fancy gimmicks. Instead it featured a TV showing photos of the late Kim Jong Il, and a gregarious diplomat named Ri Yong Bom talking up his country.

"Yes, there are people who are scared of us," he said, pressing a finger to the badge he wore, showing the face of another former leader, Kim Il Sung. "But there is nothing to fear. The American-controlled media tells untruths. You would love my country."

Ri was part of a hard-nosed group of people with an unenviable task at the world's largest tourism convention this year: Trying to convince sightseers and influential travel professionals that countries with nasty reputations for violence or oppression — places like North Korea, Iraq or Sudan — are actually up-and-coming tourist destinations.

Read more: Old problems in New India

Especially for nations like Cuba or North Korea, whose representatives are often banned from hawking their wares in lucrative markets such as the United States, there's a lot riding on the ITB. The convention gets more than 100,000 trade visitors, bringing millions of investment dollars along with them each year.

So how do countries that people are too scared to visit go about promoting themselves?

Some that are in the throes of insurrection, like Syria or Yemen, didn't bother to show up at all.

But others arrived in Berlin this year with simple displays. Sudan's stand featured a few posters and some nuts to eat, while North Korea's had little more than the TV and some brochures.

Yet others such as Burundi, long plagued by Tutsi-Hutu tensions, went as far as flying in spear-carrying men in the national colors of green, red and white to dance around the convention center.

Fadhil Al-Saaegh, manning Iraq's stand for the Al-Rafidain tourism company, said fancy advertising or dancers won't convince tourists to visit countries with a bad reputation.

Read more: The Germans' favorite new word

What's really necessary, he said, is a healthy dose of humor and a convincing pitch that everything is just fine — these days. Al-Saaegh has spent the last few years honing his argument for why Iraq is set for a tourism boom, while answering endless questions about the security situation.

"These things about killing and kidnappings are all in the past, this is what I say," he said.

Others take the tactic of denying security was ever a problem at all.

"No one should believe in these claims," said Akin Onipede, a spokesman for the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation, which uses the tagline "Tourism is Life." "This is just ignorance. Nigeria has always been a beautiful, peaceful land."

As he snacked on some peanuts, Girham Dmein, a representative of Sudan's government tourism ministry said he has a ready answer for those who ask him why they should do business with a regime with a reputation for oppressing its citizenry.

"My answer is: Are you coming here for the government or for the people?" he asked. "Darfur is far away from our capital. Come and visit our people, not our government."

Read more: Sex, drugs and inner-tubes in Laos

Of course it becomes easier to promote a destination to the West when democracy arrives.

As Libya was in the midst of violence during last year's ITB, its stand in Berlin was mostly empty and its representatives were loathe to talk to reporters.

This year was different, said Sami M. Naas, the acting director of the country's tourism authority.

"We no longer have the stupid rules or restrictions we did under Gaddafi," he said. "Now we are free and the tourism industry does not have to lie anymore."

Back at the North Korean stand, Ri said there's no lying necessary to sell his country. In fact, he said, North Korea is practically a paradise for tourists, with its mountains, rivers and an "authentically socialist" capital city.

"We try to tell people the truth but with the media controlled by Americans, sometimes nobody listens," he said, adding that he'd like to see the North Korea turned into a boutique tourism destination in the coming years. "Our dear leader Kim Jong Il did great works for our tourism sector. I know we will only see more improvements."