Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

Dylan Harris sends adventurous travelers inside 'pariah' nations

North Korea and Iran are among the destinations for Lupine Travel, which offers a first-hand view of countries most of the world shuns.

Courtesy of Lupine Travel
Dylan Harris (right, with a North Korean official at left) arranges tours to 'pariah' nations like North Korea and Iran. 'I just hope to help change people's opinions of these countries,' he says.

 If Dylan Harris isn't careful, he might find himself accused of taking a club to Western efforts to rein in countries considered international pariahs.

Almost one year after the successful inaugural DPRK (North Korean) Amateur Golf Open tournament, which he conceived and organized, the Wigan, England, adventure travel specialist is busying putting the finishing touches on a near-identical event in Iran.

According to Mr. Harris, the Iranian Amateur Golf Open 2012, set for April 20-22, will form one of the first international sporting events the Middle Eastern country has ever hosted –  at a time when it is under intense international pressure over an alleged nuclear weapons program, which has raised the threat of Western military strikes.

But while Harris admits he has had to fight claims that he should not be engaging with states once branded by former US President George W. Bush as part of "an axis of evil," he sees the tournaments more as a vehicle that might help steer people away from stereotypical observations and challenge them to view such countries from a different angle.

For Harris, dealing with – from a Western point of view – out-of-favor or discredited regimes comes easily. His tour company, Lupine Travel, specializes in offbeat locations that already include general trips to North Korea and Iran as well as countries the likes of long-isolated Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic.

"During my time traveling during my 20s, I always found the usual tourist spots quite boring, and I tended to seek out more off-the-beaten-track destinations, which I found offered a much more rewarding travel experience," Harris explains. "Iran and North Korea especially gave experiences which were completely at odds with the ones I originally expected after years of reading negative reports in the press about them both.

"I just hope to help change people's opinions of these countries. People will see footage of the British Embassy being attacked in Iran and think this is a representation of all Iranians. But this couldn't be further from the truth. This is just the same as, for example, Iranians watching TV footage of an EDL [English Defense League] march in Britain against Muslims. It's a tiny minority. The reality of the place is nothing like the images you see on the news. The hospitality you receive in Iran is like nowhere else, the people have an incredible warmth and love to meet Westerners."

Keen to promote golf in Iran, the Iranian Golf Federation green-lighted the tournament, Harris says. In three separate competitions, an eclectic field of golfers of various nationalities, including Iranians, are set to take part in the event.

The staging ground is the Enghelab golf course, a venue surrounded on one side by the sprawling Iranian capital Tehran and the picturesque Alborz mountain range on the other. Although the course contains just 13 holes – five of the original 18 were confiscated by the Iranian military – the missing holes are made up for by doubling up on holes 3 to 7.

Not long after the Iranian tournament, an expanded version of the North Korea event is on course for a second annual run in May, Harris says.

"After the success of last year's event in North Korea, I was looking to help set up a similar event elsewhere," he says of the Iran venture. "I was aware that golf in Iran had recently started to take off, particularly with women. They were very keen on the idea, as they are very proactive in trying to increase the profile of the game inside Iran.

"They had held two tournaments previously, which had locals and foreign diplomatic staff taking part. But they were interested in developing this into a fully fledged international affair with people traveling in to take part, both men and women."

Ultimately, Harris hopes anyone who might want to take part in the Iranian event will not be put off by politics. Long term, he hopes to spark more travel in the opposite direction by people living in states such as Iran.

Among the next group of targets for his self-styled travel diplomacy is Transnistria, a breakaway region of the Eastern European country of Moldova. Declaring independence in 1990, the reportedly crime-ridden former Soviet outlier has yet to gain any kind of recognition for its self-declared statehood in the international community.

But, evidently, that does not put off Harris.

 "Walking around it feels almost like a mini North Korea," he muses, "but right in the middle of Europe."

And then there is war-torn Iraq, which is still coming to grips with the departure of US troops and sectarian violence.

"I am also currently planning a tour of northern Iraq but it may be a year or two until I am able to offer this trip," Harris says. "Hopefully soon in the future the rest of Iraq will be safe enough to allow the entire country to be a major Middle Eastern tourist destination, like it was in the 1960s."

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