An interview with culture road
An interview with Culture Road,
a travel agency with extraordinary destinations
North-Korea, Iraq or Tsjernobyl… These do not seem to be popular holiday destinations to me. However, the Dutch travel agency Culture Road does offer some holidays to those places. As you might understand, I had quite a few concerns and questions for this agency. Therefore, I had an in-depth interview with Caspar Steinebach, one of the founders of Culture Road.
How did this project start?
It was 2012, and together with my friend Rick, I was wondering whether it is possible to travel to North-Korea. We found a British travel agency that offers a journey to North-Korea, and we spent a great holiday in that country. Later, we stayed in contact with this travel agency, and we started to offer these holidays via the British agency. In return, we received a commission. After a while, we were able to offer holidays by ourselves. The second destination we introduced was Afghanistan.
How is it possible to contact travel agencies and guides in a country like Afghanistan?
Is it that simple?!
Google, Facebook and other social media. We read reviews, investigate whether they are reliable. And eventually just send an email. English is often possible and I speak also a little bit of Russian and German.
And when do you know such a guide is reliable?
It is always a risk when you have not meet a guide yet. Furthermore, our contact persons and guides could change over time. In any case, we visit our destinations first by ourselves, stay in the accommodations and do some quality checks.
Would you remove some of your destinations if they become too ‘normal’?
Yes, we did that already twice, for Iran and Cuba. Not per se because it is too normal, but also because there is way more competition for such popular destinations. But yes, we aim to maintain a list of extraordinary destinations.
Is it sometimes necessary to cancel some holidays? For example when Kim Jong-Un and Trump are involved in an intense Twitter conversation?
Theoretically, the authorities in North-Korea are always able to cancel holidays. The same holds for Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan actually. The consequences would be harsh when that happens, but we have an insurance for that. Fortunately, we did not have to use that yet. During the time of tensions between North-Korea and the USA, we did receive quite a lot cancellations, but this was because these tourists did not want to visit North-Korea in that specific time.
Does that happen a lot?
Yes and no. Mostly, people cancel because of personal circumstances. But sometimes tourists are doubting for a long time, even a few days before departure. There was once a man who asked, one day before his departure to Afghanistan, whether the situation in that country was safe? He had talked to his friends in the pub, and they had almost persuaded him to cancel his holiday. Eventually he did visit Afghanistan, but it is quite often on the edge.
To what extent are you able to see what you want in a country like North-Korea?
In principle, you do not have any freedom to see what you want. North-Korea is the most extreme version of that, because everything is orchestrated. When a negative view of the country could arise, an activity will be cancelled immediately. Once we visited a factory with water bottles, and during our visit a power failure occurred. The situation in the factory was chaotic and it was a humiliation for the Koreans, and since then that specific factory is no longer part of the tourist program. They decide what kind of places you see, even if you do not want to see these places.
In North-Korea contact with the western society is not possible, but are you allowed to have your phone?
You are allowed to have a phone and you can also make pictures of everything except the military, unfinished buildings and poor people. Sometimes, a guide wants to check your phone to see whether your pictures are appropriate.
Is it possible to support a ‘normal civilian’ in North-Korea?
Everything is owned by the state, so private ownership does not exist. You could give some money discreetly to a normal civilian, but that is prohibited. The redistribution of income is a job for the state, and it is not fair if one civilian gains more from a tourist than others, according to the communist authorities.
Are these holidays to North-Korea popular?
Yes, they are. Last month the authorities panicked when all the touring cars were in use due to a large number of tourists in the country. Chinese tourists were even not allowed to visit the country for a while, since the Koreans could not manage all these tourists.
Do you consider some places as a no-go, in the sense of safety?
Yes, front lines and war zones do not seem a good idea to me. Think for example of Yemen. In Venezuela this holds for some regions, and for Syria we are considering to add Damascus to our destinations. Somalia is also a country that is not safe enough in our eyes.
Do you consider some places as a no-go, in the sense of ethics?
A difficult question. You face a complicated dilemma when you visit a dictatorship. On the one hand, it is inevitable that you support the regime. On the other hand, the local inhabitants could interact with tourists and learn something about our western ideas about democracy for example. Ideas of which they would never have heard without tourism.
I can imagine that people would characterize your holidays as a kind of disaster tourism, what do you think about that?
Yes, I have had several discussions about that. Haïti is a concrete example in that matter. A country that had a lot of misery, with wars, economic crises and natural disasters. That country is constantly recovering but faces often heavy setbacks. You could say visiting a country like that is disaster tourism and you do not help them by having a holiday. That is not my point of view however: people see tourism as a source of income. When people are visiting your country, it shows that it is recovering. You can speak of disaster tourism if you visit refugee camps and make pictures of the misery. That is not the goal of our holidays. We aim to show how the real situation is in a country, so people can create their own picture and understand the world a little bit better than they did.
For many people in countries like Yemen, Venezuela and North-Korea, life is not easy. Does it make you feel uncomfortable when you celebrate your holiday there?
It is not celebrating your holiday, it is travelling. When you celebrate your holiday overthere, you check in in your all-inclusive resort and eat a lot. That is not the case for our holidays. It does feel strange when you experience that you are so wealthy however. We try to ensure that local people profit as much as possible. We pay normal prices, and our guide eats together with us in a restaurant.
So, it is important for your agency to show the ‘true situation’ in a country. Do you also have some space to focus on responsible tourism?
We do not really concentrate on sustainability. First of all, because that is not our main purpose. Secondly, sustainability in those countries is really difficult. We are talking about developing countries with different problems. It would be extremely difficult if we want to offer only sustainable accommodations. A nice anecdote about this topic is about a German girl who visited North-Korea with our travel agency. She eats only vegan food, and she was really worried because she could not eat vegan. I said to her that she had to abandon her principles for a while, because veganism is just not an issue in North-Korea.
Finally, what is the future of your company, do you want to expand?
First of all, we are considering some new destinations, think of Belarus, Somaliland, Damascus in Syria and maybe Congo. Further, we want to work full time for Culture Road. Rick and I have both another job beside Culture Road. Since I am also an online marketeer, our websites becomes constantly better known. We also have many other plans, but our main goal is to make Culture Road better and bigger!