In the wake of Otto Warmbier’s tragic death, the China-based tourism agency responsible for his fateful trip to North Korea has come under fire for a reputation of unruly behavior and excessive drinking which may have been putting its clients into danger all along.
Briton Gareth Johnson founded Young Pioneer Tours (YPT) in 2008 in Xi’an, enticing young budget travelers with promises of rolicking adventures and crazy parties in the DPRK. Activities included “booze cruises” down the Taedong River, scuba diving trips from North Korea’s eastern coast and plenty of drinking and partying in Pyongyang, according to a report from the Associated Press.
While many may be worried about traveling to North Korea, much less partying there, the agency’s website reassures potential customers, stating that “Despite what you may hear, North Korea is probably one of the safest places on earth to visit. We have never felt suspicious or threatened at any time.”
Warmbier, a 22-year-old American college student, must have believed that story when he traveled to North Korea last year as part of a YPT group. At the end of the trip, North Korean officials arrested him at the Pyongyang airport for allegedly stealing a propaganda poster and detained him for a year, giving him no contact with the outside world. Last week, he was released by the DPRK, returned to America in a coma and died shortly after from severe brain damage.
Young Pioneer Tours founder Gareth Johnson.
Since Warmbier passed away, many former YPT customers have come forward, offering a damning image of YPT and its founder. Alex Hoban wrote about his experience with YPT in a piece published in The Guardian earlier this week.
“Young Pioneer Tours has developed a reputation for gung ho and unruly alcohol-fuelled youths, propagating an unreal idea of North Korea where safety is an afterthought,” he said.
Hoban also wrote that his tour guide was company founder Gareth Johnson, who allegedly spent the trip completely drunk.
Johnson identifies himself on social media as a heavy partier and even posted a picture on Instagram of himself holding a bottle of liquor just a week after Warmbier’s detainment. Only after his death did the company issue a statement, saying that they would no longer accept American tourists on their trips.
Adam Pitt, a 33-year-old British expatriate, went on a YPT trip in 2013 and remembered that Johnson was “almost unable to stand and barely understandable when he did speak” while taking the group through a high-security border crossing.
Pitt, who is Mormon and doesn’t drink, told Consumer Affairs about the heavy drinking and lack of safety that occurred throughout his trip.
“I’m speaking out now, because I want people to know that North Korea is not a budget destination,” he said. “It’s not a place where you cut costs, and it’s not a place where you want to take risks when it comes to putting your trust in someone who cares more about money and the status of being a North Korean travel guide than he does about your safety.”
Although Johnson has so far declined to comment, another YPT guide Rowan Beard spoke out in defense of his company.
“There were actually two YPT guides present throughout the trip, and our tourists do drink beer but not excessively. This may simply be the perception of a non drinker,” Beard told Consumer Affairs.
He also brushed off Pitt’s accusations about the border crossing, saying, “At no point was anyone ‘nearly detained’ in anyway shape or manner.”
However, several other travelers (some from Warmbier’s own tour) have come forward with similar accounts, like Christopher Barbara, who went to North Korea with Johnson in 2009.
“The way Young Pioneers managed the trip made it feel like the priority was having fun, not staying safe,” he said. “I’m not sure it was the right balance, all things considered.”
While YPT certainly isn’t solely responsible for Otto Warmbier’s death, his father Fred Warmbier wants things to change for travel in North Korea. In a news conference last week, he condemned travel groups who, “advertise slick ads on the internet proclaiming that ‘No American ever gets detained on our tours’ and ‘This is a safe place to go.'”
It’s not clear if the Warmbier family will pursue legal action against YPT; however, from what has already been revealed they may have a case.
By Caroline Roy
[Images via Instagram / Young Pioneer Tours]
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