MADRID — The affair of Otto Warmbier, the young American tourist who died last month after spending a year and a half as a prisoner in North Korea, has certainly not helped the country's image.

But North Korea has not given up trying to portray itself as a prime tourism destination. On June 15, just three days after it returned Warmbier to the United States in a coma, Pyongyang organized a conference in the Spanish capital, Madrid, to highlight the country's touristic attractions.

During a presentation of slides showing amusement parks and mountainous landscapes, the secretary-general of the UN World Tourism Organization, Taleb Rifai of Jordan, urged Spaniards and other Europeans to travel to North Korea. “The more Europeans go to North Korea, the more North Koreans will be open to the outside world,” he said, adding that it would be “irresponsible” to turn down Pyongyang’s offer to open up to western tourists.

In between nuclear tests, North Korea continues to inaugurate gigantic touristic infrastructures to attract local and international visitors.

The remarks struck a historical chord in Spain. The country opened up to tourism in the 1960s under Franco’s rule, bringing in a whiff of freedom and opening a window onto the world for many Spaniards living under the oppressive dictatorship. Still, in the context of last month's news, Rifai's remarks sounded somewhat surrealistic.

“The United States says my country is closed, that it's hard to get in; but the Americans are the ones closing their doors,” said the North Korean ambassador, Kim Hyok-chol. He insisted that his country imposed official guides on travelers not not to supervise them, but because “it is safer and more practical.”

A million visitors within five to ten years

In between nuclear tests, North Korea continues to inaugurate gigantic touristic infrastructures to attract local and international visitors. Almost 120,000 tourists visited North Korea in 2014, according to the UNWTO. The country wants to reach one million “within five to ten years” and “is impatient to learn from the Spanish experience,” the ambassador said.

Spain is the world's third tourism destination after France and the U.S., with over 76 million visitors in 2016. On June 22, the news website El Confidencial reported on the visit of the delegation of a dozen senior officials and architects from North Korea.

Buildings and hotel along the beach in Porto Cristo, Mallorca, Spain — Photo: Alexandra Schuler/ZUMA

In Barcelona, the visitors were mainly interested in the beaches and the Montjuïc Exhibition Center. Then they continued, like average tourists, to the Marina d’Or holiday resort in Oropesa del Mar, a bit further south on the Valencia coast.

On the small local train, the visitors inquired about the sewage system, leisure activities and guest management, according to amused employees of the huge 6,500-room holiday resort who spoke to the Spanish press.

North Korean want to know how a city that revolves around tourism is managed.

For the Spaniards, the choice was surprising: With its five hotels, two residential buildings, eight amusement parks and seaside resort, Marina d’Or has been accused by ecologists of destroying the landscape. And the company almost went bankrupt, with many unsold apartments lying empty or seized by banks trying to sell them at 70% below market price.

North Korea wants to open a similar resort in 2018, only “slightly bigger,” in the Wonsan region, according to its embassy in Madrid.

Inspired by Spain’s most built-up coasts

On their way southward, the delegation visited Benidorm, where it met the mayor. “They wanted to know how a city that revolves around tourism was managed,” Leire Bilbao, manager of the VisitBenidorm foundation told El País. With 26 skyscrapers along the coast, this city of 700,000 inhabitants became a symbol of mass tourism and a popular destination in the 1960s for the lower and middle class.

The North Koreans visited the tallest hotel in Europe, the 186-meter-hight Bali hotel, but were also interested in camping sites. They were intrigued to know whether the parcels had water and electricity, hot showers and toilets.

The North Korean delegation was also impressed by the Benidorm Terra Mitica, an amusement park that recreates great Mediterranean civilizations, which almost went bankrupt during the 2008 crisis.

Every year, Spain, the Mecca of European mass tourism, has to concern itself with misbehaving visitors. On June 10, some 20 British tourists ran naked through the streets of Calvia, near Palma de Mallorca, blocking traffic, And on July 6, an Irish tourist ended up quadriplegic after jumping from his first-floor hotel room into a children's pool.

But for the Spaniards, nothing was more intriguing at the beginning of tourism season than the delegation of North Koreans looking for inspiration in their most built-up coasts.

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