The imminent opening of the ‘Hotel of Doom’ and rising tourist numbers have spurred new hotel construction projects in the North Korean capital

For almost 20 years the Ryugyong hotel (often dubbed the ‘Hotel of Doom’) stood towering over Pyongyang as constant reminder of the country’s economic failures. This albatross around the city’s neck all of a sudden turned into a point of pride in 2008 when long-dormant construction restarted. This was followed last year by the promise of investment and management by the luxury German hoteliers the Kempinski group. They are planning a partial opening by the middle of this year.

North Korea Ryugyong Hotel

The sun is reflected from the top of the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, which remains under construction, in Pyongyang, North Korea. Pic: AP.

It appears this has sparked a new growth industry in the North Korean capital, as reports emerge of new hotels being built. The non-profit group Chosun Exchange posted a snapshot of one of these building sites with the explanation:

“One change that was hard to ignore was the huge gaping hole next to the venerable Koryo. Construction for a new hotel was under way and the site was quite busy, with several work teams and plenty of revolutionary music. It is supposedly meant to be a 75 storey structure, though we also heard 45 storeys thrown out.”

Others soon confirmed these suspicions with Gareth Johnson of Young Pioneer Tours tweeting back: “There are actually 2 more being built at the moment, not including the Ryuggyong, as far as I am aware.”

This spate of hotel work raises some question, chief amongst them being simply ‘why?’

North Korea already has several prominent hotels, the infamous island-bound Yanggakdo and the Koyro being the most common accommodations for foreigners. Their qualities, or lack of, are much discussed, as are their quirks and oddities (can a falling elevator be called a quirk?). These hotels may vary in quality but one commonality between them is that with an estimated 7,500 beds (that was back in 1999) there is rarely a shortage of vacancies.

So why build more, and why now? Little is built in this most tightly controlled and organized of cities without official approval and planning. Is North Korea expecting a tourist boom?

Although obviously not a tourism hotspot North Korea can perhaps move away from being a tourism dark-spot. And as we have seen in Burma over the last year or two, it doesn’t take long for a country to change from a pariah to a favourite tourist destination.

Kempinski CEO Reto Wittwer said of the Ryugyong “we have to get this hotel if there is ever a chance, because this will become a money-printing machine if North Korea opens up.” That’s certainly a big ‘if’, but the company seems confident of making a profit. Maybe they know something we don’t.

Reliable figures are hard to come by for the DPRK’s tourism industry, but the number of Chinese visitors rose to a high of 190,000 in 2012. This has been aided by an increasingly easy visa process (just 1-day wait for Chinese, no visa needed for Malaysians), and the ‘guides’ taking a more standoffish approach.

A UN tourism expert James Macgregor also sounded positive, telling the China Daily: “This region represents one of the fastest growing tourism destinations in the world. The potential for establishing cross-border tourism routes is great with increasing demand of China’s and other countries’ markets.”

With the ever-increasing numbers of Chinese tourists perhaps Pyongyang’s new rooms may not be so superfluous, but it is still likely to be a long time before you have to worry about finding a place to stay for your last-minute Pyongyang trips.