Dead student’s travel company accused of a ‘cavalier attitude’
THE promise of helicopter rides over Pyongyang and boozing with the locals at a beer festival in the world’s most secretive country is an instant lure to thrill-seeking travellers.
But since the death of American student Otto Warmbier, 22, who returned from a North Korean prison in a coma and whose funeral was held yesterday, the travel company he used, Young Pioneer Tours, has faced accusations that it was too casual about the risks of travelling to such a ruthless regime.
Founded in 2008 by Briton Gareth Johnson, the company built a reputation for “trips to destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from”, with most of YPT’S Tripadvisor reviews glowing tributes to the professionalism of its tours.
However, since Mr Warmbier’s death, some former travellers have alleged that YPT tours have a cavalier attitude. Alex Hoban, a Briton who travelled with the company in 2009, said: “Young Pioneer Tours has developed a reputation for gung ho and unruly alcohol-fuelled youths, propagating an unreal idea of North Korea.”
Mr Warmbier was reportedly drinking until 5am on the night of his socalled “crime”, added Mr Hoban, referring to the student’s alleged stealing of a propaganda poster in a hotel, for which he was sentenced to 15 years hard labour.
Adam Pitt, 33, a Briton who travelled with YPT to North Korea in 2013, accused the company in an earlier interview of putting tourists at risk by encouraging drunken behaviour.
Mr Pitt, who does not drink, claimed Mr Johnson was often “blind drunk”, and “absolutely clueless” during a tense confrontation with border guards on the journey to China.
Troy Collings, a partner at YPT, strongly denied Pitt’s claims and said that Mr Johnson also refuted the allegations: “Adam Pitt’s account of that particular tour is nothing like that of other tour members.”
He said that on the night of Mr Warmbier’s alleged crime his group had been told to go to bed at a reasonable hour and avoid being hungover.
YPT said this week it would no longer take Americans to North Korea because the risk “has become too high”.
The funeral procession for Otto Warmbier, who died after he was returned to the US