A visit to North Korea’s just-opened Masikryong Ski Resort promises to be a “fascinating, bizarre, and very worthwhile experience,” suggests Beijing-based Koryo Tours. But, while taking to a North Korean piste is surely unusual, company representatives aren’t yet ready to add Masikryong to their itineraries.
Regardless of location or political climate, injury goes hand-in-hand with skiing. And before Koryo brings its first visitor, the company wants to ensure their safety.
“We believe in responsible tourism very strongly, so we’ve been discussing this with the British Embassy and will be waiting to see what sort of advice they give,” Koryo managing director Simon Cockerell, who visited the resort over the weekend, tells NK News.
According to Cockerell, there are several manned first-aid stations along the slopes. Masikryong staff, who told him they have been dealing primarily with dislocated joints and sprains since the December 31 opening, will also be able to cast and set broken bones on-site. For more serious injuries, skiers will either be driven 40 minutes to Wonsan, where there is a hospital, or if circumstances demand, evacuated by helicopter. Currently, choppers will be flown in from Pyongyang in the event of major injury, but helicopters will be on standby at the resort once it is fully operational, representatives from the New York based Uri tours have been told by their North Korean colleagues.
Although these –and other–details remain unresolved, tourists will nonetheless be able to visit Masikryong beginning this month.
Uri Tours will be leading its first group to Masikryong from January 25-29, where guests will choose from nine (of eleven total) runs, with a combined length of 110 kilometers.
Trips can also be arranged through Young Pioneer Tours, though groups of less than six will will be “independent” excursions without the company of Western guides. YPT’s Troy Collings will be visiting Masikryong on February 3; the company expects to begin sending tourists the following week.
THEY BUILT IT, WILL THEY COME?
NK News reported in August that North Korean authorities initially had ambitious expectations of some 5,000 daily visitors to Masikryong, 250 days of the year, with day-passes costing about $50. But as advertised on YPT’s website, the current price for a day-pass will now be 25 euros ($34).
Far from 5,000 visitors, Cockerell of Koryo Tours says there appeared to be roughly 200 visitors when he visited, mostly coming from the nearby east coast city of Wonsan. But even though the initial number of visitors seems far off the North Koreans’ mark, the company believes the resort has potential, writing in a blog post that “the number of local Korean skiers here was also a great surprise, considering that prior to a fortnight ago there was just one ski slope in the country, and in a very remote and hard to reach area.”
Cockerell also says he was impressed with the skill-level displayed by many of the skiers.
“There are a large number of trainers who help you with advice on what parts of the slope are fast or slow, pick you up if you fall, and drive you between different areas on Ski-doos,” he tells NK News. “The level of assistance offered to beginners is also very impressive and I saw a wide range of abilities and ages of skiers on display here.”
Winter sports experts have told NK News the Masikryong resort appears to be fairly well-equipped.
Odd Stensrud, manager at Hafjell-Kvitfjell, one of the biggest alpine resorts in Norway, says that, judging from the pictures circulated in news reports, he wouldn’t have guessed Masikryong was in North Korea if he didn’t know beforehand.
“The things you can see from the pictures in the news reports could have been anywhere, at a small or medium-sized ski resort anywhere in the world,” Stensrud says, noting that most of the visible equipment hews to international standards and comes from respected manufacturers.
“The only thing that stands out is the lift, which isn’t exactly of today’s standard,” he admits. The lift is a so-called “fixed-grip” chairlift – a type that largely went out of use at commercial resorts during the late eighties and early nineties.
“Fixed-grip lifts are still in use, but in those cases it’s more of a transport lift than a ski lift used for tourists who are skiing,” explains Stensrud. “When the distance to be traveled exceeds 1,000 meters it starts being particularly impractical.”
Identifying the manufacturers of the four lifts serving the resort has proven to be difficult. According to Uri Tours, the lift that goes to mid-peak is a used Austrian lift, although it’s not clear where it was obtained. The lift that goes to the top is Chinese in origin, and is broken into three segments, requiring riders to get off and on again. Three belt-lifts bring skiers to the top of the bunny slopes.
A $7.5 million deal with the Swiss manufacturer Bartholet Maschinenbau AG Flums to provide lifts for the resort was blocked in August by the Swiss government on the grounds that the deal would violate international sanctions against North Korea. The current sanctions regime, introduced with UN Security Council resolution 2094 in March last year following North Korea’s latest nuclear test, had been specified by a Swiss government directive to include “installations for infrastructure and equipment for sports facilities with a luxury character.”
Main picture courtesy Uri Tours