North Korean tourism authorities will soon allow foreign visitors to take a train from Pyongyang to the extreme northeast of the country and then cross the border into Russia, the Beijing-based Koryo Tours said on Friday.
The new route is the first major destination and protocol change in the North Korea tourism industry since authorities opened up the city of Sinuiju to Westerners in 2013.
Under the new rules, visitors will be able to travel on a scheduled train service along the length of the eastern railroad to Russia and on to Vladivostok by road.
Tourists have only seldom been allowed to travel by rail on the east coast and have not typically been allowed to leave the country by land into Russia.
“Even for all the times I have been to North Korea, this was something very special indeed and we hope to expand the range of train trips we can offer in future,” said Koryo Tours General Manager Simon Cockerell, who tested the route in October and has visited the country 166 times.
“The whole journey should be around 31 hours,” he continued, saying while there are no restaurant facilities aboard the train it as “a leisurely way to see some parts of the country that you wouldn’t normally be anywhere near.”
The announcement comes towards the end of an especially turbulent year for the North Korea tourism industry.
The death of U.S. citizen Otto Warmbier in June, a subsequent ban on Americans visiting the country in September, and generally worsening relations between Pyongyang and the U.S. have all contributed towards a notable contraction of the industry, multiple travel industry sources told NK News throughout October.
Chinese visitors, once the bread and butter of the industry, have dropped significantly, sources added, a small fraction of the 237,000 that were recorded as visiting in 2012.
Yet those who take the new route next February can expect to ride a local train with “North Koreans going about their business,” Cockerell said, adding that the “carriage tourists can use is the last one, a sleeper carriage.”
Normally, visiting foreigners have few opportunities to mingle with local citizens, with the train between Sinuiju and Pyongyang being a rare counter-example.
After arriving at the final station, Rason, passengers will subsequently have a choice of leaving the border through China to enter Tumen, or going on to Vladivostok, following a several hour’s drive from the Russian side of the border to the coastal city.
While Vladivostok recently facilitated visa-free access for nationals from 18 countries – including North Korea – most foreigners who travel this route will likely have to obtain visas for Russia, China and the DPRK, a potentially expensive process for many.
“I get a lot of requests from travelers, who would like to cross to DPRK from Russia or from DPRK to Russia,”said Emil Truszkowski, founder of Poland’s North Korea tourism website Pozdro z KRLD/Chollima Exchange.
“I’m sure there will be people who would like to visit both DPRK and Vladivostok region, as they feel like an uncharted land for a tourist from the West.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Main picture: Koryo Tours
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