Journey to the East: Strange Encounters with Shower Villas

(This is part 1 of a 2-part report. The concluding portion will be published next week)The final months of 2013 in North Korea saw a strange concoction of visionary economic targets and political purges. Although such major events do have an impact on the feasibility of projects, but they do not reveal the problems in the way projects are carried out by local leaders, mainly the lack of a technical and qualitative understanding in delivering a project.

These issues became evident during a workshop on developing tourism zones in Wonsan last November. Our site visits to a beach resort in Wonsan and Sinphyong Kumgang Scenic Beauty Resort; and interaction with various participants provided some insights into their obsession with big projects and the difficulties in achieving them.

Wonsan
Wonsan

After enduring a 4-hour journey on an uneven road from Pyongyang to Wonsan, we headed straight for the Kalma Peninsula, where our bus stopped right in front of what appeared to be a series of beachfront villas spaced about 60m apart and fronting a long pristine coastline. However, upon closer inspection and further explanation by the guides, these villa-like buildings were in fact toilets and showering facilities, with the capacity to accommodate more than 100 users in each building (not at a single time).

Perhaps, the local planners are preparing the ground for 1 million visitors a year – their target number for the beach resort – but it still does not explain why locate all the ancillary services in a location with the best view, instead of capitalising on the visitors’ experience with private residential units or food and entertainment facilities along the beachfront. We were told that eventually, food stores would operate along the beachfront.

Such an unusual planning of facilities and spaces seem to be a one-off issue, but it became apparent during the workshop with local officials and planners. We had hoped for an engaging discussion on latest trends in tourism products, services and experience. Instead, we were loaded with very technical questions on physical infrastructure, which reflects a critical element of the local psyche.

 “What is the typical global average for the number of toilets per person per resort?”

“What is the typical global average for the amount of electricity and water consumption per person per resort?”

“Where should we site a power generator plant for our resort?

These questions reveal several issues. First, there is a need for basic technical knowledge in delivering a large-scale project. Second, the idea of market research or feasibility studies for the sites is non-existent. Third, their perception of luxury is relatively dated and the concept of visitors’ experience is absent from their planning dictionary, where their idea of delivering a tourist resort is simply the provision of basic facilities and amenities.

For a country that has frequent power cuts and lack of running hot water in hotels, perhaps the concept of ‘experience’ is a level of sophistication, which they cannot afford to invest in at the moment. However, to achieve their goal of developing Wonsan into a tourist destination to an acceptable level for the average tourists, local planners and officials have to step up their game given their handicaps.

Already, North Korea is not blessed with the best climate: its seas are cold for more than half a year. In order to tap on the landscape asset of a bay and a peninsula (the key geographical ingredients for a beach resort), planners in Wonsan need to think beyond basic service; or else, their grand plans for the 8km long coastline from from Songdowon Beach in the West to Myongsasipri Beach in the East will just be a string of resorts with giant ‘shower villas’.

Again, the lack of understanding of ‘experience’ can also be witnessed in other resorts. Unlike the resort name, the beauty of the landscape in Sinphyong Kumgang Scenic Beauty Resort does not correspond with the visitors’ experience.

With only a 15-bed hotel located at the entrance of the resort and a guided nature trail in a bus, visitors can hardly immerse themselves within the landscape, which is supposed to be the raison d’être of the resort.  As such, a trip to the resort at most warrants a lunch visit, rather than a week long retreat. Perhaps the project is just at its inception. However, the problem with North Korean planners is not only their lack of understanding in executing quality projects but their focus on quantity of projects in order to fulfill their grand visions.

Brought by the local official to the top of a boulder with a view of the site, a local official started asking for my opinions on designing a golf course within the hilly landscape.

For a start, developing and maintaining golf courses is an expensive infrastructural investment given the climate and terrain in Sinphyong, where proper irrigation system has to be provided, earth has to be moved and levelled, etc. More importantly, what this encounter reveals is their obsession in accumulating large-scale projects, without solid technical understanding of delivering them to a reasonable standard and quality. Perhaps, the local officials’ performance is judged by the amount of projects executed rather than the quality, but such a mindset will only lead to suboptimal outcomes.

What do all these mean?

It is common for leaders (across all political systems) to desire for grande projets, not only as a tool to leave traces of their legacy, but also due to a genuine belief that these projects will improve the economy and social life of their people. However, history has informed us that the reality of these projects - from recent Olympic Games to various new cities across Asia – often do not match up to the original intended visions.

North Korea is no exception. However, when compared to other global examples, North Korea’s problems are perhaps more exacerbated. Its precarious political scene, geography and climate, coupled with the lack of technical understanding in the product they are developing will only lead to suboptimal results.

Such problems do not only exist within their grand plans for tourism but in other major projects too. Even though the industries are different, the fundaments and approach are similar. Therefore, without fundamentally changing the way results are evaluated, these projects can only remain at best expensive white elephants.

Calvin is an architect and urban designer based in London and Madrid. He researches and writes on emerging cities for various magazines and organisations. In addition, he is a Fellow at Fundacion Metropoli and a member of Choson Exchange.