Why you should care

As Mark Twain said, travel is fatal to prejudice.

The United States’ relationships with North Korea, Iran and Cuba are unhappy, each in its own way. North Korea’s totalitarian regime has nuclear weapons, and the intentions of its leader, 30-year-old Kim Jong Un, are opaque. Iran has a nuclear program, too, though its moderate new president, Hassan Rouhani, aims to more than double the number of foreign visitors. Unlike Iran and North Korea, Cuba was never deemed part of an “Axis of Evil,” but the U.S. embargo against it — as well as travel restrictions — has outlived the Cold War by decades.

Yet American travelers can visit all of these supposedly forbidden places — legally — so long as they go with an authorized tour group. Ah, yes, but why go? Long Island physician Bimal Massand, who’s traveled to all three countries, quotes Mark Twain to explain: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” With that in mind, here’s why you should go and how you can pull it off.

Photo of Iran

Shah Mosque, Iran

Source Getty

THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN

Why go:

The glories of this ancient civilization come alive in poetry, stunning architecture and landscapes that could give Provence’s a run for the olive groves. For all the splendor, prices are relatively cheap. A 10-day premium tour with New York-based Iran Custom Tours costs about $1,900, says owner Norma Lee Nichols-Madhavi. Forget “Death to America”: Iranians are warm, hospitable and not shy about inviting you over for tea and political debate.

Legal issues:

American tourists must travel with a government-authorized guide, but the guides aren’t suspicious minders and usually allow their charges ample freedom. Since the U.S. government doesn’t have consular relations with Iran, it can’t provide routine services or protection. The upshot: If you meet trouble, you’ll be in the hands of the Swiss.

Visas and arrival:

Tour companies handle visa applications; the process can take from a week to a month. The visa confirmation number, your passport and fees are sent to the Iranian Interests section of the Pakistan Embassy, then returned to you not long after. Matters may be trickier for Americans of Iranian descent or with Iranian family ties. Americans are fingerprinted at immigration, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will keep a copy of your itinerary.

What to do:

Visit Isfahan, once the capital of Persia. Renowned for its gardens, covered bridges and Islamic architecture, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As a Persian proverb has it, “Isfahan is half the world.”

What not to do:

Dress immodestly. No tight jeans, short skirts, or exposed arms. Women should wear a headscarf in public and, at certain religious sites, a chador. Still, don’t be a slob. “The Persian women are knockouts,” says Nichols-Mahdavi. “They’ve figured out how to take modesty and make it sexy.”

North Korea

Visitors paying respect to Kim II Sung, North Korea

Source Getty

NORTH KOREA

With few exceptions (see: Dennis Rodman), Americans consider North Korea off limits, a Hermit Kingdom and one of most repressive regimes on Earth. It is an isolated, totalitarian state. Still, “a country is made of individuals,” points out Nicholas Bonner, head of Beijing-based Koryo Tours. Most of Koryo’s clients (including 500 Americans in 2012) shed their preconceptions in Pyongyang and return home with more questions than when they arrived: “Engagement just helps, on both sides.” With the government contemplating a special tourism zone and opening the country to tourism year-round, now may be the time to go. Just mind the nuclear threat.

Legal issues:

Americans must travel with a certified tour provider. Two Korean guides will accompany them at all times, except in hotel rooms. Are the guides watching each other, too, in case one of them says something untoward? “A North Korean would never say anything untoward to a stranger,” says Bonner.

Visas and arrival:

Apply through a certified tourist agency at least four weeks in advance. North Korea provides tourist visas of unlimited duration, but few tourists stay longer than six weeks. Your guides will keep your passport for the duration of your trip.

What to do:

Visit the DMZ, or demilitarized zone. Hang out with your North Korean tour guides, since they’re some of the only Koreans you can talk to. See the annual Arirang Mass Games. The Mass Games take place in a 150,000-seat stadium, where on one side some 30,000 schoolchildren make giant, shifting backdrops from colored placards. On the field, thousands of gymnasts and dancers perform complex routines. “It’s an amazing human spectacle,” says Massand, who saw them in 2012.

What not to do:

The State Department warns that unescorted travel could earn you an espionage charge and a term at a labor camp. You could also get your North Korean guides in trouble. So don’t stray. Other no-nos: evangelizing, crossing the border without a visa, journalism and showing disrespect to North Korea’s leaders, past and present.

Street in Havana, Cuba

On the street in Havana, Cuba

Source Getty

CUBA

Why go:

The embargo loosened in 2011, making it easier for Americans to get to Cuba legally. And there’s a lot to experience in this tropical country: glamorous if crumbling architecture, a warm if crumbling communism and nightclubs and outdoor concerts. Music wafts down Cuban streets. Since international tourism accounts for some 70 percent of their country’s income, Cubans know how to make travelers feel welcome.

Legal issues:

The U.S. embargo began more than 50 years ago, and though Obama’s Treasury Department has expanded licensing for Cuba tourism, restrictions remain. Most Americans must enlist with a government-licensed tourism company. Travelers face daily spending limits — the embargo is technically about money, not travel — and can’t withdraw money from banks or use credit cards. Travelers must also keep on their tour company’s schedule, at least during the daytime.

Visas and arrival:

You’ll get a visa if you’re traveling with a licensed company. Many Americans still go illegally, taking a flight from Mexico or Canada and not getting their passports stamped. But if you’re legal, you can take the half-hour flight from Miami. Expect plenty of hand luggage: Cuban Americans, who can travel under individual licenses to visit family members, often bear gifts of TVs, electronics and even toilets.

What to do:

Explore, make friends, strike up conversations. Unlike in North Korea, you’ll be pretty free to wander around during your off-hours,and Cubans don’t look askance at foreign tourists.

What not to do:

Expect to go to the beach or do anything mindless or solitary. Government-sanctioned tour companies operate under “people-to-people” licenses, which require U.S. tourists to be on “a full-time schedule of educational activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.” Frolicking in the warm surf, alas, doesn’t usually fit that bill.

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