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Danger Zone: How Tour Operators Sell Unrest, Crises to Travelers

The death of Otto Warmbier has exposed a developing strand of adventure tourism that offers thrill-seekers front row seats to places gripped by unrest.
Image: Randy Williams poses in front of the Korean Revolution Museum building in Pyongyang
Randy Williams poses in front of the Korean Revolution Museum building in Pyongyang.Courtesy Randy Williams

Before entering North Korea last year, San Diego radio host Randy Williams got his affairs in order: He created an Excel spreadsheet with his financial information, signed over his power of attorney to his agent, and then made a video explaining that if he were detained for whatever reason and confessed, it was only because he was coerced.

His trip came less than six months after American college student Otto Warmbier was arrested and eventually sentenced to 15 years of hard labor for the crime of attempting to steal a propaganda banner from his Pyongyang hotel. Williams was not only staying in that same hotel, but he also booked his visit months in advance through the same tour operator used by Warmbier, who died mysteriously last month after slipping into a coma.

"I'm not sure if I'm brave or if I'm a fool," Williams, 40, recently told NBC News.

Image: Randy Williams poses at the top of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang
Randy Williams poses at the top of the Juche Tower in Pyongyang.Courtesy Randy Williams

Roughly 1,000 Americans visit North Korea each year, tour operators estimate — one of more than 40 countries on the U.S. State Department's travel warning list. While Warmbier's death may be an extreme consequence of going somewhere so isolated, it exposes a developing side of the so-called danger tourism industry that has little oversight — and offers globetrotters front row seats to places gripped by crisis and unrest.

The State Department's travel warnings can be "overly cautious," said Joseph de Thomas, a former State Department official and professor of international affairs at Penn State University. "Then there are the warnings for places like North Korea."

"An American passport," he added, "is not an international 'get out of jail free' card."

Related: Tourism Helps North Korea Leader’s Nuclear Program: State Dept.

Travelers get a rush from being on the doorstep of these dangerous places, but safety remains paramount, tour operators say.

Douglas Layton, a Connecticut man who co-founded an Iraq tour company a decade ago, said they are "in tune 24/7" with security issues because of the inherent difficulties of being in a country ravaged by terrorism.

The company itself is based in Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq known as Kurdistan, which has been largely untouched by the wider violence.

Before June 2014, when ISIS seized the city of Mosul — about an hour and a half from Irbil — Layton said tourism in Kurdistan was flourishing. So much so that his description for the region as "The Other Iraq" caught on, and new tour operators popped up to beckon international visitors to ski its snow-covered mountains.

But the threat posed by ISIS effectively wiped out tourism interests until recently, Layton said. The Iraqi government announced Thursday that it had declared victory over ISIS' self-declared caliphate in the country.

"We have bookings through 2018," Layton said. "Everything is really coming back on line."

The Adventure Travel Trade Association pegs the industry as a whole — including everything from kayaking in the Amazon to scaling Mount Everest — at more than $260 billion annually.

Initially, Layton's clientele were wealthier Westerners and retirees willing to shell out thousands of dollars per trip. Interest has since grown to include thrill-seekers from China.

"They want to feel that they're getting close to some kind of danger," Layton said.

The company is licensed by the local board of tourism, he added, and the government has a vested interest in ensuring foreign visitors aren't in peril when they arrive at the tightly secured Irbil International Airport.

Image: People make their way on Shar Garden square in Erbil
People make their way on Shar Garden square in Irbil, northern Iraq, on June 8.ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / Reuters

Adventure traveler Matthew Karsten said he's looking to visit Iraqi Kurdistan after going to Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor last August on his own. He said he and his fiancée are also thinking of going to Eritrea in northeast Africa, which is on the State Department's travel warning list, and would use a tour operator for safety reasons and because obtaining a visa can be difficult.

Going it alone can be hard, although that's what he prefers, he added.

"You have to build up a wealth of travel experience, knowledge, and maturity to understand how to keep yourself out of dangerous or compromising situations," he said in an email.

Layton said that tour guides willing to put lives in immediate danger should be brushed off: "We get a lot of people who want to go to Mosul, but we absolutely refuse to take anyone anywhere that is unsafe. There are people with these fly-by-night organizations that will."

International companies fall under local government oversight — or sometimes a lack thereof.

U.S. tour operators generally have disclaimers in their contracts with customers that they're not liable if something goes wrong abroad, although there are state laws to protect consumers, said tourism consultant and lawyer Phil Cameron of The Rule of Law Association.

"The consumer has to understand that they have the real burden to follow laws. If they go to a Muslim country and are told don't bring pornography and alcohol, it's up to them not to do it," Cameron said.

Charles Leocha, co-founder of the consumer advocacy group Travelers United, said operating tours can be competitive and companies stand to lose business if they don't have a solid reputation.

Nicholas Wood, a former New York Times correspondent in the Balkans who founded the U.K. tour group Political Tours, said he holds extensive briefings with clients before going abroad to places such as North Korea, Libya and Iran.

He nixed a tour to Libya after the death of an American diplomat in Benghazi in 2012, and said he is indefinitely suspending trips to North Korea after growing tensions between the totalitarian regime of Kim Jong Un and the Trump administration.

"The most important judgment you have to make is how safe your customers will be," Wood said. "A place like North Korea is no joke."

Image: Randy Williams poses in front of the Korean Revolution Museum building in Pyongyang
Randy Williams poses in front of the Korean Revolution Museum building in Pyongyang.Courtesy Randy Williams

Young Pioneer Tours, the company that hosted Warmbier, announced it would no longer bring Americans to North Korea after his death. Some Washington lawmakers have floated the possibility of an outright ban on allowing Americans to travel there.

Williams, who also booked with Young Pioneer Tours, said that while members of his group were "encouraged to have fun" and some even got drunk and did karaoke with their North Korean guides, the tour company acted responsibly.

Related: Group Behind Otto Warmbier’s North Korea Trip Won’t Bring More Americans

Young Pioneer Tours spokesman and tour guide Matt Kulesza said all customers get pre-tour documents about safety, must sign a "terms of travel" agreement and attend a mandatory pre-tour meeting.

"Provided people choose to follow local laws and customs ... travelers will have a positive experience," Kulesza said in an email.

For those who are thinking of visiting North Korea — or any place that may be deemed dangerous — Williams said to be practical. "If you're intrigued by it," he said, "do your research."