TOKYO – North Korea, never a country to take the threat of foreign invasion lightly, has been under virtual lockdown since October to keep the Ebola virus from crossing its borders. But two leading travel agencies that specialize in the small but growing North Korea market say they have confirmed the North may be ready to open up its doors again soon.
The country has taken some of the strictest Ebola measures outside of west Africa despite having very little contact with any of the countries that have been impacted and being — by any reasonable standard — at a very low risk. Some reports by the state media have insinuated Ebola was created by the U.S. military.
But Uri Tours, based in New Jersey, recently announced on its website that it has received a strong indication tours will be allowed to resume in January, "just in time" for foreign skiers to hit the slopes of Masik Pass, which it calls the "most exotic ski destination on earth."
It added that the annual Pyongyang Marathon in April is "a definite go."
Koryo Tours, another major agency, says it has also confirmed the travel restrictions will be lifted sometime between January and April. Beijing-based Koryo Tours is promoting travel packages from late January for the ski resort — though with a little less fanfare than Uri Tours — and is taking applications for the marathon.
Since the Ebola measures were announced in late October, visas for non-essential travel have been halted and, regardless of country or region of origin, all foreigners allowed in are technically subject to quarantine under medical observation for 21 days. That includes diplomats and international aid workers, though they are allowed to stay in their residences or diplomatic compounds. It is not clear how strictly the rules are being enforced, particularly along the Chinese border.
In tandem with its announcement of the Ebola measures, North Korean media launched a daily barrage of reports for domestic consumption depicting the dangers of the disease and how their government had jumped into action to protect the nation from its horrors. The move is not unprecedented. In 2003, it closed itself off over the SARS scare, though that was more of a threat because that disease affected neighboring China.
The frequency of such reports has dropped off — a sign that the significance of the issue has been downgraded.
Politics, of course, could still sour tour company optimism.
A U.S. official said Wednesday that federal investigators believe there is a North Korean link to the devastating hack attack on Sony Pictures that scuttled the release of the movie "The Interview," a dark comedy about an assassination attempt on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The White House has so far stopped short of assigning blame, but if Washington ends up taking punitive measures against Pyongyang, North Korea might again clamp down on unwelcome foreign visitors.
The travel restrictions are taking an economic toll.
The handful of luxury hotels in Pyongyang that cater to foreigners, hardly crowded even in the best of times, are now hauntingly empty. Regular flights into the country from Beijing continue, but are largely bereft of foreign businessmen and prospective investors, for whom the restrictions underscore the complexities of doing business with the North's unpredictable bureaucracy.
Despite its wariness of the outside world, North Korea has made a concerted effort to bolster its tourist trade in recent years by setting up special tourism zones and developing scenic areas and recreational facilities. The push is aimed primarily at Chinese tourists. Tens of thousands of Chinese tourists visit each year, according to Koryo Tours, while only a few thousand go from other countries.
Masik Pass, which opened last year and is the country's only luxury ski resort, is the most prominent tourism project. The marathon was opened up to foreign amateur runners for the first time this year and proved to be a popular tourist draw as well.
Even before the Ebola scare, this year had been a bumpy one for foreign travel companies, which saw the detention of two Americans who entered the country with their help on tourist visas. One was caught leaving a Bible in a provincial sailor's club and the other, who claimed he deliberately wanted to be arrested so that he could experience the North Korean prison system, was convicted of espionage.
Both have been released.