Taking tours of places your mother would rather you stay away from

BY Matt Cassidy

A trip to North Korea; an adventure to Afghanistan; or a sojourn to Somalia are most likely not the types of holidays of which most Irish people are dreaming. Yet it is all in a day’s work for Renmore native Shane Horan who leads tour groups to these countries, as well as many other places “that your mother would rather you stay away from.”

Having left Ireland for New Zealand in 2009, Horan has been based in Beijing, China for the last three years, after stints in Australia and Asia, where he works as the international tour manager at Young Pioneers Tours (YPT ).

“My role is to develop, organise, and make sure our international portfolio runs smoothly. This involves managing a team overseeing our tours and offices in Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Russia, and many more.”

The NUIG graduate says travelling has always been a passion of his and when a job opportunity at YPT became available, enabling him to travel to places like North Korea, it was something he grasped with both hands. “I have a degree in geography from NUIG so I have always had a fascination with foreign cultures, people, photography, and combining all three.

“Ever since George W Bush labelled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the “axis of evil” in 2002, I have wanted to travel to each one to see them for myself, so I started researching how to get there. That is when I discovered Young Pioneer Tours. They offered exactly what I wanted in terms of a lifestyle working with misunderstood destinations, so I applied demanding a job and they eventually relented.”

Tours to North Korea

North Korea’s reputation precedes itself with stories of poverty, a dictatorship, and foreigners being arrested for minor actions which are seen as hostile acts against the country and harming the dignity of the supreme leadership being circulated by various western media outlets. The outcome of this coverage leads many to believe it is place to stay well away from, never mind go for a holiday visit. However, Horan believes the country’s description by the media can be over the top.

“About 80 per cent of what is written and reported online about the country is myth. Nobody really knows what goes on there so anyone can write what they like and expect people to believe it, because it is North Korea and it sells. Having said that, there are a few documentaries and books out there that do depict the place in the most accurate way as possible.

“The great mysteriousness, uniqueness, and lack of understanding of the country are some of the main reasons I keep returning.”

For those wishing to disregard the media reports and travel to the country, Horan says there are many things to do and see from visiting the various towns and cities outside the capital Pyongyang to chilling out on the beach and having a beer in the pub.

“We get all sorts of characters, backgrounds and ages on these trips. We are an English speaking company so it is mainly Australians, Americans, British, Germans, Dutch etc. They are mostly adventurous well-travelled individuals who are like minded and curious about seeing beyond the propaganda. We visit not only the capital Pyongyang but many towns, cities, beaches and mountains up and down the country. We do everything from laying flowers at statues to learning about ‘American imperialists’, and singing karaoke until four in the morning.”

St Patrick’s Day Tour

There is even a St Patrick’s Day Tour allowing groups to sample craic, ceol, agus ól North Korean style. “This year will be YPT’s fourth St Patrick’s day tour to North Korea. We even have a few Irish joining us this time. In previous years we have run the Pyongyang pub crawl but this year I am also arranging an Irish themed evening at a genuine local bar where I will be handing out shamrocks and organising a sing-song.”

However, if North Korea is not your cup of tea, Horan says he also runs tours and research trips to other tourist ‘not spots’ such as Chernobyl, Transnistria (breakaway from Moldova ), Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea over the coming months.

Although Horan has a great love and enthusiasm for the job which allows him to travel to remote outposts where mass tourism has not yet struck, and meeting like minded people, he does concede that the bureaucracy and red tape that goes along with organising travel to these unique destinations can be drawbacks at times.

“There is a reason they [the countries] are difficult to get to. The lengthy visa/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 given for that one.”

The future

With new tours and more countries to explore, Horan harbours ambitions to stay in Beijing to help foster development and cultural engagement between not only North Korea but other so-called ‘rogue states’ and the outside world, while also opening up even more global destinations ‘that your mother would rather you stay away from’. But does the man originally from Lakeshore Drive in Renmore foresee a return to Galway some day?

“Galway will always hold a place in my heart. There is a lot to be said about a pint on Quay Street outside Tig Neachtain on a warm August afternoon. I will be back one day.”

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