North Korea attracts end-of-term tours for Hong Kong students
It's not the first place you'd think would be on the list of end-of-term destinations to let off steam after a hard year of study, but North Korea is proving a big pull for Hong Kong students.
Encounter Korea, the organiser of the trip to the world's last Stalinist outpost, which has in recent times been issuing bellicose military threats to its enemies, says that despite the political instability Pyongyang is proving a big draw.
"We had our first trip while we were all students in Hong Kong and we were overwhelmed by applications," a company spokesman said. "In the end, we could take only a small fraction of all the students."
Many students in Hong Kong take their summers seriously - the majority will go from their lectures straight into internships or voluntary work. A trip to North Korea can provide not only a valuable learning opportunity but also a travel experience that cannot be likened to lying on a beach in Thailand.
People still tended to react with shock on learning one could actually visit the country, the spokesman said, although the visa application was very straightforward. Participants need to provide only a photocopy of their passport and everything else is managed for them.
But there are simple rules that the traveller must follow: no photos of the military or of rural areas; no wandering away from the tour group; and no leaving the hotel alone at night.
The organisers prefer to remain anonymous for reasons of sensitivity and potential for exploitation. Last month, British correspondent John Sweeney stole into the secretive state alongside his wife and a cameraman by attaching himself to a visiting group of 10 London School of Economics students.
Two previous participants gave their trips the thumbs up. Indian student Lakhan Mehra, 23, was studying accounting and finance at the University of Hong Kong when he set off in August.
"It was a great experience, since we went there without any sort of expectation at all. The locals were very welcoming when you interacted with them."
Canadian Jean-Francis Laganiere, 25, agreed. He was studying engineering at City University when he went in November.
"It's hard to explain an experience that not many people can understand. But I would say it's really a personal experience. For myself, I used it to be a better and more knowledgeable person."
Generally, tour groups fly into the country from Beijing, Shenyang or Liaoning . Some take a train that goes via Dandong , opposite the city of Sinuiju in North Korea.
More than 140 students and academic staff in seven groups have been there. Group sizes range from 11 to 28. The next tour is from June 7 to 12.