North Korea has announced a temporary ban on tourism, citing the threat of Ebola virus, multiple tourism agencies announced Thursday evening Korean time.
Three tour companies contacted by NK News – Koryo Tours, Young Pioneer Tours and Juche Tours – confirmed they were notified by North Korean authorities that, starting from Friday, no foreign groups will be allowed to enter the country.
“We have been told by our Korean partners that the relevant DPRK authorities have decided to close the country to tourists due to the Ebola threat. This is to apply from tomorrow, 24th October until further notice,” said David Thompson of Juche Tours.
“We have just been informed by our partners in North Korea that tomorrow North Korea will stop accepting international tourists due to the threat of the Ebola virus, effectively closing its borders,” a statement issued on Koryo Tours Facebook page read.
News of the suspension, which was broken within minutes of each other by Koryo Tours and Young Pioneer Tours, comes amid increasing international fears about the potential for the Ebola virus to spread – which has infected over 9,000 people to date.
“Three days ago we were told by Pyongyang that anybody from Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia – or anybody that visited these countries – would have to provide the medical certificate stating they didn’t have Ebola,” said Gareth Johnson, Chief Executive of Young Pioneer Tours, whose company still has visitors inside the country.
That tour group, currently in Pyongyang, have been told they are allowed to stay and can even apply to extend their current travel visas.
“The North Korean authorities seem to have been asking foreigners about the virus and it seems to be a genuine concern,” one tourist industry insider told NK News on condition of anonymity.
“Some people might rush to more wild conclusions that it is a cover for another reason but we have heard that North Korean authorities have been trying to find out more from foreigners about the virus and about its spread,” the insider added.
While no time frame has been placed on the ban, Nicholas Bonner, Koryo Group founder and director, told NK News that authorities indicated tours booked later in the year may still be able to be completed.
“We have heard that our tours in November may be able to run, but we will only be advised of that in more detail over the next few days,” Bonner said
Like North Korea, South Korea has also made headlines for the reaction in some quarters to the virus. Its national airline, Korean Air Lines Co., banned flights to African destinations in August.
North Korean state media also published an article in September saying that preventative measures and operations were currently being implemented to mitigate the threat of ebola.
“At present, information activities and strict border quarantine are being conducted in the country,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said on September 24.
“Measures were also taken to develop preventive medicine against Ebola with regular hygienic and anti-epidemic work,” KCNA added.
KCNA also said that an official from the Ministry of Public Health in Pyongyang would be taking the lead in the anti-Ebola campaign.
Andrea Lee, CEO of Uri Tours, also told NK News that she has been informed by North Korean authorities that new protocols are being established to safeguard the country against the spread of the ebola virus.
Confirming reports from other travel companies, Lee said that individuals who have been to Africa prior to arriving in the DPRK must present an Ebola clearance certificate.
Lee also said that those who have not traveled to Africa must still submit a written statement testifying to that fact.
“We are not aware of any protocols the DPRK is implementing for travelers who have been to other parts of the world affected by the virus,” Lee said, adding that Uri Tours also has clients currently traveling in the country.
Despite the news, Koryo Tours General Manager Simon Cockerell told NK News that the ban was not unprecedented, citing a similar ban took place in 2003 – during the peak of the SARS virus outbreak. This ban was in effect for 3 to 4 months before normal operations resumed.
In Spring 2013 a Chinese travel company announced that all tours to North Korea would be cancelled due to spiraling tensions on the peninsula.
The ban, which only affected Chinese companies running trips to North Korea from the border city of Dandong, followed a warning made by Pyongyang which advised foreigners based in South Korea to start preparing evacuation plans in the event that conflict took place.
In 2009, British tourists were temporarily banned from visiting North Korea for a brief period. No reason for the unilateral ban was ever made public, though NK News understands it related to a diplomatic misunderstanding.
It is estimated that approximately 6,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year.
Additional Reporting: Chad O’Carroll
Picture: NK News
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