Wipeout! Surfing hits North Korea

Anmar Frangoul | Special to

Sun, sea and surf are not the first things that come to mind when thinking about North Korea, or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) as it's officially known. But in September, New Jersey based Uri Tours will take intrepid travelers to the waters of the pariah state for a "surf camp and expedition."

The expedition, which will last seven nights and cost $3,200 for a single traveler, will comprise of two parts.

The first will, "include analyzing surf weather patterns in the DPRK and identifying ideal surf spots," while the second will be a surf camp where Nik Zanella, who coaches the Chinese National Surf Team, will offer surfing lessons and guidance.

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"At the beginning, it all started out of pure curiosity," Zanella, who grew up in Italy but is now based in Hainan, China, told CNBC over email. "Looking up north to (North) Korea came naturally after having surf-mapped most of what's south of it, in the China Sea," he added.

Last year Zanella met Andrea Lee, CEO and founder of Uri Tours, in Shanghai to show her the coastlines he thought most promising based on satellite photos.

"They liked my ideas so Andrea mediated with local authorities, and we had their OK on a few areas on the east coast," Zanella said. "Hamhung and Sijung are complementary from the surf perspective," he added.

Korean-American Lee will also be present on the tour to lead the expedition with Zanella.

While Zanella said that, technically, there was nothing "special" about North Korean waves, he said they were, "empty, pristine, and… hold the thrill of exploration, breaking in one of the most remote countries on the planet."

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks in an undated photo released April 26, 2015, by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.
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Lee said there were a mix of reasons why people were interested in going on holiday to countries like North Korea. "Some people will come because it's the one place their friends have not been to," she told CNBC over email.

"Others genuinely want to learn more about a country that is so mysterious to the world," Lee added.

"Whatever the reason, our clients are usually worldly, open-minded and adventurous travellers looking for more than an average vacation."

Zanella said that, currently, the surfing community in the DPRK was "close to zero. I heard there's one boy, named Kim, who received a board and lesson from some passing surfers." During the camp, locals will come and take part in seminars and surfing lessons, he added.

Lee's company already offers a range of tours and itineraries to North Korea, giving tourists the opportunity to do everything from watch the DPRK national soccer team in action to running the Pyongyang marathon.

The country is not known for its openness, with Human Rights Watch saying that North Korea "remains among the most harshly repressive countries in the world."

Lee said her company has to liaise with the government before trips are finalised. "When setting up a new tourism program, we need to go through an approval process with the DPRK government," she said.

"When we propose a new itinerary, we advocate for it and show its value. For instance, we argued for the opening of the Pyongyang marathon to foreign amateur runners," she added.

And while some plans were met with resistance, Lee said "In the case of surf, we got support immediately. The Koreans are as excited about this as we are."

Many people will be skeptical about a tour such as this, but Zanella has high hopes. "Surfing is a great vehicle for achieving cultural exchange in a fun and healthy way," he said.

"It creates a neutral ground on which people can stand, no matter where they are from, to face a vast and beautiful ocean together."