People, Travel

N. Korea Opening Borders to Foreign Tourists

N. Korea Opening Borders to Foreign TouristsN. Korea Opening Borders to Foreign Tourists

North Korea has lifted tough restrictions on foreign travel, imposed last year to prevent the Ebola virus from being carried across its borders. A Beijing-based tour company, Koryo Tours confirmed that it applied for 15 tourist visas and the first group tour will arrive in Pyongyang on Saturday March 14.

“We’re pleased to announce that today marks the first time in more than four months that tourism to North Korea resumes to normal,” Nick Bonner, co-founder and director of Koryo Tours told the South China Morning Post on March 3.

“We are still waiting for absolute confirmation from our partners that these visas will be issued without any restrictions or caveats, and that the tour will proceed as normal.

“But all the signs so far are looking good, and we expect more concrete details on this tonight or tomorrow.”

The already isolated country virtually closed its borders to foreigners last October, halting all non-essential visas and requiring those few foreigners allowed in to undergo three weeks of quarantine. The rules applied to diplomats, NGO workers and even senior North Korean officials returning from overseas trips.

Officials in Pyongyang said the restrictions and quarantines would continue for visitors from Ebola-affected countries in Africa and those countries that have borders with them.

North Korea’s decision to set the restrictions despite the lack of any real threat has been a disaster for foreign travel agencies that specialize in bringing tourists to the North.  There have been no Ebola cases in Asia, and North Korea has very little exchange with the African countries that have been most impacted.

  Routine Checks

A statement from North Korea’s state emergency quarantine committee obtained by the Associated Press said tourists from Ebola-hit countries such as Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and their neighboring countries would still be placed in the three-week quarantine, while tourists from other countries would be able to enter with routine medical checks.

North Korea had been pushing tourism in hopes of gaining much-needed foreign currency and has over the past few years tried to improve its tourism infrastructure.

Last year, it opened its first luxury ski resort and it has announced the establishment of a number of special tourism zones across the country. It is mainly targeting tourists from China, but an increasing number of tourists are coming from the West as well. But the lifting of the restrictions appears to come too late for one of the year’s biggest tourist events.

Officials have already announced that foreigners will not be able to participate in the Pyongyang marathon next month, although they might have time to reverse that decision. The marathon was opened to foreign recreational runners for the first time last year and was a big success, with some 225 amateurs and a number of professionals taking part alongside local runners.

Travel agents said they expected hundreds of runners from abroad to join this year, but had to cancel their bookings at the last minute. About 40 people from Hong Kong were due to join the marathon but had to cancel the tour.

Koryo’s Bonner, who said his tour company aims to build on cultural engagement with North Korea, welcomed the reopening.

“This is not just good news for those tourists interested in visiting one of the world’s most mysterious countries, but also in terms of the work that can now continue in breaking down the barriers and misunderstanding that still exist,” he said.

North Korea has also indicated that it will not hold its popular Arirang mass games extravaganza this year. The mass games are another big tourist attraction.