Becoming a leading expert on nuclear war was probably not what a Wigan businessman had in mind when he set up his travel company.
But last week Dylan Harris of Lupine Travel found himself staring at alarming information in an email from the KFA (Korean Friendship Association), a North Korean government-affiliated organisation.
Lupine Travel offers tourists the chance to explore unique destinations, including North Korea.
Dylan said: “The emails always contain pretty strong rhetoric but this was on another level. It began with the statement reading ‘the situation is critical with the outbreak of war probably only hours away.’
“As soon as I read it I was pretty shocked,” he added.
Offering trips which may not immediately come to mind when handing in a holiday form, to destinations such as North Korea, Chernobyl, Iran and Turkmenistan, means Dylan receives vital information of this nature.
MEETING THE LOCALS: Dylan (left) shakes hands with a North Korean guard
With tensions between North Korea and the US rising in light of South Korea’s foreign minister warning the North had shifted a missile to its east coast, Dylan was quickly at the centre of a storm when he posted snippets of the email out on Facebook.
He continued: “It didn’t cross my mind to send it out to the press as I assumed they would have the same information as me. From then on the situation went pretty crazy!
“Friends of mine shared the story on their timelines and the next thing I knew the phone was ringing constantly from media all over the world.”
The main concern for Dylan wasn’t media attention though – he had a group of tourists in the country.
He explained: “The first thing I did was to check up in the situation on the ground as I had a tour group making their way out of the country by train. I established contact and my guide there confirmed everything was ok and there were no visible signs of tension on the streets.
“None on the group were made to feel uneasy at all.”
Business has been growing steadily for Lupine Travel since 2009 and the company has started to break down barriers where pre-conceptions exist on alternative travel.
Dylan said: “A frequent question is: ‘isn’t it dangerous visiting these places?’ The answer is a big resounding ‘no!”
However, there are precautions travelers need to take when experiencing culture so vastly different to anything they have ever been part of before.
“The majority of the time it is just common sense,” said Dylan.
“My clients aren’t really the type who go on boozy holidays. 90 per cent of the time it is just about respecting people and treating them the way you would want to be treated.”
Setting-up a travel business to take people to secret states and sites of nuclear disasters isn’t a simple task.
Dylan explained how his company was born: “In my early twenties I went inter railing around Eastern Europe, traveling across France, Belgium and Germany.
“I still remember vividly as we reached Berlin and crossed to the eastern side. The wall had been down for 10 years at this point but it appeared that still nothing had changed. It was almost like going from colour into black and white.
“There was something about it that appealed to me. It was like crossing into another world and I wanted to get to know the people out there; what they did and who they were.”
Traveling further afield, Dylan experienced the Trans-Mongolian Railway, the world’s longest at over 6,000 miles, before going onwards into North Korea.
WISH YOU WERE HERE: An alternative holiday destination… Chernobyl
He continued: “The whole trip had been a logistical nightmare and took months’ of planning. It turned-out to be a life changing trip though and by far the best journey I have ever been on.
“I had met a handful of people along the way and they all told me the same thing – it had been extremely difficult to organise. I decided to get in touch with the contacts and guides I’d met to suggest setting up tours myself.
“I just put up a website and let it run from there. Over the first 12 months or so I got the odd customer come through but then in early 2009 things started to pick-up and numbers have increased greatly each year since.”
One place Lupine offers trips to which particularly captivates clients is Iran, though considerations must also be taken there.
“It’s unlike any other country in the Middle East,” said Dylan.
“It feels very Westernised in the way people act and dress. However you have to remember that it is a strict Muslim state,” he warned.
“It’s surprising how easy it is to drop your guard. People will invite you to parties, offer you alcohol and members of the opposite sex will want to talk to you. It’s easy to just accept without thinking of the consequences but if caught the punishments are extreme.”
This is in stark contrast to the secretive North Korea in Dylan’s experience.
“There’s no chance of dropping your guard there,” he added.
“We just need to make sure our clients respect the feelings the North Koreans have towards the Kim dynasty.”
Along with culture, Lupine also allows clients to step foot into history books with visits to Chernobyl.
It’s a particularly insightful trip in Dylan’s eyes.
“No matter how many books you read or documentaries you watch; it doesn’t feel quite real,” he said.
“It was just something that happened years ago in the old USSR. When you visit and see the scale of everything and the effects it had on millions of people, it really hits home.”
Before entering the travel industry, Dylan was a prominent figure in the regional music scene and learned skills which have helped his business.
“Putting on gigs was worrying in a similar way,” explained Dylan.
“In 2004 I put on Pete Doherty in Wigan and had no contract, just his word that he’d come down and play.
“I had no idea if he would turn-up. I had 1,000 people inside the venue with curfew approaching and that point I was completely convinced he wouldn’t.”
Doherty showed-up 40 minutes before curfew and played a short set and Dylan attributes his ability to work under pressure to such experiences.
“The stress that went with that day is enough to prepare me for any situation ever again in my life,” he said.
Lupine is also continuing to grow.
In May, Dylan is running the third annual North Korean Golf Open and in June he is visiting Iraq to explore the possibility of setting up tours there.
Further down the line he is also hoping to be able to offer tours to Afghanistan if safety concerns improve.
More information can be found at www.lupinetravel.co.uk
Travel Guide: Behind the Iron Curtain… North Korea
To prepare for North Korea you need to provide Lupine with a passport scan and a letter with proof of your employment or study. Journalists are not allowed visas and can’t visit the country.
Americans can travel to North Korea but they aren’t allowed to take the train in like most people do – they must enter by air.
Previously, laptops and phones were not allowed but restrictions have recently been relaxed. The current list of things you’re not allowed to take is:
– GPS devices
– Camera lenses over 350mm
– South Korean literature
Chernobyl and North Korea pictures courtesy of Lupine Travel, with thanks