How I Started A Not Normal Tour Company [North Korea, Iraq, Antarctica]

Published: April 15th, 2022
Gareth Johnson
Young Pioneer Tours
from Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China
started January 2008
market size
avg revenue (monthly)
starting costs
gross margin
time to build
270 days
growth channels
Word of mouth
business model
best tools
Twitter, Instagram, Canva
time investment
Side project
pros & cons
40 Pros & Cons
18 Tips
Discover what tools Gareth recommends to grow your business!
social media
Discover what books Gareth recommends to grow your business!
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My name is Gareth Johnson and I am the Managing Director and founder of the adventure travel company Young Pioneer Tours.

We originally formed as a company 14 years ago specializing in North Korean tours, and before the pandemic, we were the leading company. We have since branched out to off-the-wall places like Iran, Iraq, Antarctica, and unrecognized countries. We are not your normal travel agency.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I was born in the UK and left school without going to university. I did several sales jobs before running a small business involved in after-school childcare. Overall though I wasn't doing much in the UK, so moved to the layman Islands as a bartender, and ended up working on cruise ships before ending up teaching English in China.

Go out and do it yourself. If you need to live off of nothing do it, you will not get rich quickly and even if you do the work only begins there.

I found that teaching was not my calling and since starting my first business a 20-year-old had always wanted to get back into the business. It was in China that I decided I wanted to visit North Korea. I noticed all the companies, of which there were few, were extremely expensive. I found a cheaper route and went on my first tour with the idea of starting the company.

In North Korea I managed to score meetings with the right people and an idea was born, on my next trip, I took paying customers for my new company Young Pioneer Tours.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

I left school without any education and mostly did menial jobs before I left the UK. Honestly felt like an ant or a cog in the system and that my life was not going anywhere. I started a business that was relatively successful but felt I wanted more and to see the world.

It was then that I started my nomadic stage where I was essentially paid to see the world, but being paid by other people rather than paying myself, or running a business.

Part of what drew me to China was stores from other people about the potential there, even if you just started as a teacher. It was here that I had the idea to run tours to North Korea. Initially, I just persuaded a bunch of friends to come with me but turned this into a North Korea-centric business.

After proving proof of concept and getting a loyal following we have since branched out to every continent on the planet and I have become involved in several other projects, such as crowdfunding the purchase of a tropical island in the Caribbean.

Overall in my life, if I wanted to do something I have just done it. So, when I decided I wanted to be paid to travel the world I took a risk and went for it. It helps that I am passionate about my product. I design tours I want to do and this somehow resonates with people.


How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

I am a travel agent during Covid-19, so we are operating at a fraction of everything we were before, from staff to locations and salaries, but as the world slowly opens up, so we slowly start to grow.

In short, we aim to continue providing services and travel where possible until it is time for the world to get back to normal and us to be able to offer all the places we were before.

In the future, we will continue to innovate and I hope to dominate the adventure travel sector by adding more destinations and staying ahead of our competition with these innovations. We go to places many would not touch, but we are kings of a niche that is big enough to support us.


Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

We started the business over 14 years ago, so there is so much I wish I could go back and teach myself, not just 14 years ago, but even two years ago!

The main thing I wish I had done is embraced Search Engine Optimization (SEO) much earlier, but it should be remembered that the internet was very much a different place back then.

I also wish that at times I had been more cutthroat, you need a killer instinct to do well in business as everyone knows, but also compassion. I am not sure I always got this balance right.

I am extremely pleased that we have managed to create a strong brand with good recognition in our sector. We have also had excellent customer retention, which has been directly caused by the policies we have implemented.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Whether you love or hate Facebook and I probably fall into the latter it is essential for business as are other platforms like Instagram and Twitter. It is important to use them all the correct way. FB directly gets sales, Twitter is a way to communicate with media and IG is like a big calling card.

From a logistics point of view, I like Moz for SEO and Google for business when it comes to emails and management of the company. But that also is the great thing about tech, what is good today might not be tomorrow, so we always move with the times.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

There is only one book that has influenced me Buyology which was written by a leading marketer on why we buy what we buy. It has heavily influenced how I created the brand I have and even the photos that I use on my websites.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

When I first tried to start on business I kept thinking people would help me and would pitch ideas to “rich” people. No one will help you unless you've designed something of epic proportions.

Go out and do it yourself. If you need to live off of nothing do it, you will not get rich quickly and even if you do the work only begins there. To be an entrepreneur means to work hard all of the time. It is a 7 day a week job that you can't leave. Make sure you want this, otherwise stick to just being salaried - it is much less stressful.

Where can we go to learn more?

Want to start a tour company? Learn more ➜