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View more articles by Damin Jung
Damin Jung was an NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked at the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) Korea Chair.
About 70-80,000 Chinese tourists are visiting Rajin each year, a northeastern North Korean special economic zone that borders China and Russia, a trip report released on Thursday by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) suggested.
The number – which is notably high for the region given growing sanctions against the North – was calculated based on anecdotal data gained from a trip the report author took to the region in July, 2017.
“Judging by the number of Chinese spectators at the children’s concert in the Palace of Pioneers, it appears that about 500 Chinese tourists visit Rajin each day,” said Leonid Kozlov, an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok.
“According to our guides, high tourist season lasts around five months, from May through September, which would mean that approximately 70-80,000 tourists visit Rajin every year.”
However, multiple sources from the North Korea tourist industry told NK News on Friday that the numbers lacked credibility, pointing out that they appear to be based on guesses from limited and unreliable data.
“No way they run 500 people through daily, not a chance,” one of the sources said, who requested anonymity in order to talk about the data. “Hotel capacity isn’t that high and customs capacity is low too.”
Another source from the industry agreed.
“I don’t see those kind of numbers at all when I goto Rason…it’s pretty dead up there and we can always book hotels last minute, they always have vacancies,” the source said, also talking on condition of anonymity.
According to the report, the cost of a tour package to Rajin is about USD $450 for four nights and five days, including a ferry ticket, accommodation, three meals a day, and excursions.
If the report tourist data estimates were therefore true, it would mean the value of Chinese tourism to the area would be up to USD $36 million per year.
But while numbers are difficult to estimate, the report nevertheless suggested there are still many Chinese and Russian people going to North Korea.
On a recent NK News visit to Yanbian, local tour operators remained upbeat about the health of their sector, with companies offering a selection of tours, including overnight visits to the North Korean special economic zone of Rason and a summer itinerary to the east side of Mt. Paektu.
“We have groups of at least 20 tourists leaving for North Korea four days per week at the moment,” noted one source at a travel agency in the town of Hunchun, which lies directly across the Tumen from Rason. “There’s lots of interest from both locals and visitors, and we haven’t seen any drop in numbers recently.”
Moscow and Pyongyang also seem to be enhancing their bilateral cooperation in the tourism sector, of late.
A new Russian travel agency, NKOREAN, was officially launched in Moscow in late August.
And in early August, the Russian embassy in Pyongyang announced that North Koreans and citizens from 17 other countries can now visit Russia’s Far East area using a free electronic visa, with tests for the registration of e-visas having been available on the website of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since August 1.
The DPRK’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) also reported on May 17 that North Korea had begun operation of a ferry route between the country’s Rason port and Vladivostok.
KCNA reported that the “Rajin-Vladivostok international tourist liner Mangyongbong would be operated by common efforts.”
According to Kozlov’s report, the ferry line was launched by a Russian-North joint venture and provides weekly passenger and cargo service, being the only regular international ferry service to North Korea.
Kozlov’s trip was organized by the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), the Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and Russian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Far Eastern Studies in Moscow, as a part of a research project that examines economic, political, and security links between Russia and North Korea.
“Russia’s relations with North Korea are often ignored in the West, being completely overshadowed by China,” the report said. “However, Russia has had a long-time presence in North Korea, of which Rajin is the prime example.”
Edited by: Chad O’Carroll
Featured Image: Rajin Port, Wikimedia Commons