I take tourists to places your mother would rather you didn't go

Q&A: Guiding tours into North Korea is all in a day’s work for this Galway man

Shane Horan from Renmore, Co Galway, is the international tours manager for Young Pioneer Tours, a travel company specialising in travel to “places your mother would rather you stay away from” including North Korea, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Eritrea, Chernobyl, Chechnya and Turkmenistan. The company is based in Beijing, where Horan has lived for the past three years.

Were you always interested in travel?

My travel bug got the best of me in 2009 when I left Ireland in search of something new and exciting after finishing a master’s in international relations. It was the height of the “depression” and I felt like my future prospects were too narrow, so I bought a one-way ticket to New Zealand. I stayed there for a year before moving on to Australia, Laos and Vietnam. I arrived in Beijing, where I live now, three years ago.

How did you end up bringing tour groups to North Korea?

I've always been fascinated by North Korea, geopolitics and so called "rogue" regimes in general, having studied both Korea and Iran for my degree in geography at NUI Galway. I had been aware of Young Pioneer Tours for years and was a big fan of what they were all about, so I applied, came to Beijing and next thing I knew I was hanging out with North Korean army officers overlooking the demilitarised zone, guiding a group of tourists.

Tell us about the tours into North Korea. Who goes on them? Where do you go?

We get all sorts of characters, backgrounds and ages on these trips. This is an English-speaking company so it’s mainly Australians, Americans, British, Germans and Dutch etc. They are mostly adventurous well-travelled, like-minded individuals who are curious about seeing beyond the propaganda. In North Korea we visit not only the capital Pyongyang but many towns and cities up and down the country. Why? I believe that any sort of engagement with North Korea, no matter how small is the only way the country will change and open in the future.Tourism and cultural exchanges go a long way to dispelling myths and stereotypes both for North Koreans and the people visiting there. We are constantly opening more and more places to visit and we have three charity projects currently underway where tourists can contribute and spend time volunteering.


Where is the most interesting place you visit on the tour?

Visiting North Korea is like taking a step back in time and onto another planet but my favourite places to visit are the public hangouts such as parks and beaches. Here you will find regular Koreans cooking barbecues, playing volleyball and drinking rice wine. Sometimes we get involved by dancing with the old ladies and blasting out Korean songs among others. I can confirm that the Fields of Athenry has infiltrated many a Pyongyang park and late-night establishment in the past.

What is the best thing about your job? And the worst?

The best thing would have to be travelling to remote outposts where mass tourism has not yet struck and meeting the like-minded people who travel there too.

The worst part is the bureaucracy and red tape that goes along with organising travel to certain countries in Africa and central Asia. The lengthy visa or permit process and arbitrary visa denials can cause quite the headache. Once I was applying for a Uzbek visa. My application was promptly refused based on my assumed ties to Isis because of my medium-sized beard.

Another time I was arranging a tour to Turkmenistan and two days before the travel date the authorities decided to reject all visas, causing absolute chaos. No reason was given for that one.

You organise an annual “St Patrick’s Day tour” of North Korea. What is “Irish” about it? Who goes on it?

This will be the fourth St Patrick’s Day tour to North Korea. We have even got a few Irish joining us this time. In previous years we have run the Pyongyang pub crawl but this year I’m also arranging an Irish-themed evening at a genuine local bar where I’ll be handing out shamrock and organising a sing-song.

What are your plans for the future?

Right now my plans are to stay in Beijing and help grow tourism and cultural engagement between North Korea and the rest of the world. I’m also focused on growing within the company while opening up even more global destinations “that your mother would rather you stay away from”.

When I’m old and grey with a few marbles rolling around upstairs, maybe I’ll move back home to settle down.