For some people, holidays abroad are a chance to unwind in the sun, maybe enjoy some local cuisine and the tourist attractions. But for others, a trip abroad means adventure, thrills and exploring parts of the world that few would never dream of visiting.
If you fall into the latter category, then there’s a travel agency in Wigan to help you do just that. Lupine Travel is the brainchild of seasoned traveller and former music promoter Dylan Harris, who has been taking tourists, who range from 18 to 88 years old, to dangerous and exotic locations such as North Korea since 2008.
He made the career switch from music to tourism after embarking on a trip that started in Wigan and took him through Russia, along the trans-Mongolian railway all the way to the North Korean border. Most people would have stopped here, the doorstep of one of the most repressive and isolated countries in the world, but not Dylan.
He said: “North Korea was something that had intrigued me for years, it felt like an unknown, mystical place. I always thought it would be impossible to get in there, but during that trip, I actually found a Chinese guy on the border who was able to take tourists inside to North Korea. I find that kind of travel really rewarding, places off the beaten path.”
Around a year later, Dylan had the “spark of an idea” to share this experience with others. He started small, taking friends, and then friends of friends, to these daring locations, but things soon “snowballed”. By 2011-12, he had added more destinations to his roster, which now includes the likes of Turkmenistan, Libya and Iran.
Most of his tours cost around £1,500, with a five-night Sudan highlights tour at the cheaper end of the scale at £955, and a month-long tour of West Africa (Togo, Benin, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Liberia) the most expensive at £3,240.
ManchesterWorld spoke to Dylan to find out more about his tours and the things you need to consider if you’re planning your own adventure in the future.
Before Dylan and his team can take anyone into one of these hard-to-reach countries, he embarks on solo research trips. Safety is paramount to everything that Lupine Travel does, and they are able to ensure this thanks to the network of local contacts on the ground that he has established over the years.
He said: “I know the initial thought when people see the destination that we offer is that these places are completely dangerous and people shouldn’t be travelling there. The reality is that there are always safe regions to go to in these countries, and my job is to find the secure route that people can travel to.
“The other side of it is dealing with governments in these places, trying to get visas and the authority to travel from place to place, that’s probably the biggest challenge we have after the safety aspect of it.”
Lupine Travel has a clear track record when it comes to the safety of their clients. However, Dylan has encountered some sticky situations while on research trips. He was once arrested in Uzbekistan, accused of smuggling drugs, which were in fact co-codamol he was taking for migraines. He was also arrested in Iran after being wrongly accused of having an affair. However, his biggest scare happened in Nicaragua when he got caught up in anti-government protests in Nicaragua.
“It was just bad timing, there were huge government protests taking place and there were people being shot outside our hotel, there were cars being overturned, tanks coming down the street. That was one of the most terrifying experiences, definitely,” he said.
Many of the places that Lupine Travel offers tours have a history of conflict, or are governed by authoritarian regimes with dubious human rights records. And Dylan is all too aware of the ethics of tourism in these areas and quick to dismiss the idea of war voyeurism.
His trips to Syria, for example - a country which has been at war for over a decade and is ruled by dictator Bashar al-Assad - focus on local culture and history. Some of the sites include the Roman ruins of Palmyra, which were nearly destroyed by ISIS attacks, the crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers, as well as the capital city Damascus, which is both an ancient and cosmopolitan city.
“We’re definitely aware that it can be controversial to travel to these places. There are definitely pros and cons to it, certainly with some of the regimes that are in charge in some of these countries,” he said.
“We really ensure that we work directly with people on the ground and we don’t work with the governments to provide the tours. We feel that the income that we can bring in and help people on the ground is a real benefit.”
’People have their eyes opened’
Dylan describes his tours as a “two-way process.” On the one hand, his clients get to learn about and experience cultures that are otherwise inaccessible, and on the other, they are able to share their insights on life in the West.”
This is especially the case in countries like North Korea, which is completely ostracised from the rest of the world. Dylan said that this isolation has “had no positive effect on the country.”
He added: “I feel that the benefits of taking tourists there outweighs the negatives. It creates an important flow of information into the country. The young guides there are having their eyes opened for the first time regarding what else is happening outside and discovering issues they were not previously aware of. These people are the children of the elite and will be the decision-makers of the future in North Korea, so by developing more of an understanding of the outside world, it can only create a positive impact for the future.”
Having been in the tourism industry for over a decade, Dylan has also witnessed how some of these places are changing.
He said: “It is still important to learn about the current history as well. It is both fascinating and educating to hear real-life stories from people who have lived through years of civil war and how they have been able to cope with it.
“In the case of our Transnistria tour, it’s been possible to see how attitudes regarding Russia have started to change there amongst some of the population, since they’ve seen first hand the effects of it and the floods of Ukrainians coming across the border.”
For Dylan, it is these cultural exchanges and encounters with everyday people that make his job worthwhile. He said: “From communicating with seldom visited tribes in the Solomon Islands through to meeting and talking to the general public in places like Iran and Syria. In particular, in these closed off countries, I find it really rewarding to be able to chat to these people and hear their stories.
“The people in these countries can feel ignored by the outside world when their countries have been ostracised due to their governments. So to be able to talk to them and develop an understanding of their situations is very important.”
The tourism industry has had a difficult few years, firstly due to the pandemic and now the cost of living crisis. Dylan says this has been “horrendous” but bookings are now up to 80% of what they were pre-Covid. But now there are new challenges – what little infrastructure that was in place for tourism in these lesser-travelled countries has disappeared.
The war in Ukraine has also taken its toll on business. Around 30% of business used to come from trips to Ukraine and Russia, but now they have been halted for the foreseeable future. Similarly, tours to Afghanistan, another popular Lupine Travel destination, have stopped since the Taliban seized power. There have been no tours of Iran since the anti-regime protests broke, but Dylan is hopeful that an April trip there may go ahead.
He now is scouting out new locations including an upcoming research trip to Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, and down to Angola. There are also plans for trips to Venezuela, another region that has seen anti-government protests in recent years, and Papua New Guinea.
Another new location for 2023 is Saudi Arabia. The planned tour in October is already fully booked and a second tour has been organised for November. They are also expanding their tours in Iraq, which were previously limited to the safer northern region of Kurdistan, and will now be visiting the south, including Baghdad, Babylon and Basra.
For the second year in a row, Lupine Travel are also offering a Wigan to Iraq train tour in September, loosely following the journey Agatha Christie took that inspired Murder on the Orient Express.
It is important to note that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advises against all travel to southern Iraq.
’Take a chance on somewhere different’
Dylan explained that his clients have to be “fluid” and understand that the tours depend on what is happening on the ground. And while caution must be exercised when entering these countries, you need to approach the experience with an open mind.
He said: “The departures are never guaranteed, it’s all down to what the situation is at the time. We never want to put people at risk, so if there is any possibility that things are not going to run smoothly, then we would either cancel the tour or change the route to enable us to avoid any potential issues.
“As far as the actual destinations go themselves, I would say to people, clear your mind of all the preconceptions you have of these places and just take a chance on trying somewhere different. I just think it would be a really memorable trip to people and really expand people’s horizons.”
More information about the tours and destinations Dylan and his team offer can be found on the Lupine Travel website.