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Chad O'Carroll has written on North Korea since 2010 and writes between London and Seoul.
Chinese tourism to North Korea “increased dramatically” since the beginning of June, tourism industry insiders told NK News on Friday, with train and plane capacity both expanded significantly to accommodate the expanded demand.
The rise in interest is notable because it comes following two partial Chinese bans on tours to the North, one from November last year – after repeated DPRK missiles tests – and one after a catastrophic bus accident killed 32 Chinese nationals visiting the country in April.
“Within the last three weeks Chinese tourism to North Korea has increased dramatically,” said Rowan Beard of the Young Pioneer Tours travel agency, adding it appeared that the April “ban the Chinese government placed on Chinese tourists from visiting Pyongyang … has now been lifted.”
As a result of the enlarged demand, train tickets from Dandong to Pyongyang have become extremely difficult to obtain, even though trains have been expanded to include up to fifteen carriages, “the longest train I’ve seen ever leave Pyongyang,” an anonymous industry source said.
“The train is fully booked for at least another 15 days,” said a foreign resident of Pyongyang, adding that recent geopolitical developments meant that the “Chinese government encouraged (PRC nationals) to visit abroad and subsidized their visits.”
Simon Cockerell, General Manager of the Beijing-based Koryo Tours, said that “for the last few weeks there have been literally hundreds of Chinese tourists at any one time in the DPRK, and not just in Sinuiju,” a border city that many Chinese go to on day trips from Dandong.
“I was in Dandong recently and a Chinese tour operator there told me his company has 300 plus tourists going to Pyongyang the very next day,” Cockerell continued.
The anonymous industry source further added that in mid-June there were over 1,000 Chinese tourists in Pyongyang simultaneously.
The numbers are significant when considering only 4,000-5,000 Western visitors visit Pyongyang each year, while the increased demand even potentially impacting on North Korea’s capacity to serve the Chinese clientele.
“Chinese speaking tour guides have been working non-stop and at this time of year (when) they usually get mobilized for rice transplanting,” Cockerell said, adding that “most of the Chinese speakers haven’t been doing that due to workload.”
“Some English speaking tour guides have (also) been retraining in Chinese too, to help when there are simply too many mainland tourists”.
Beard said that the warming relations between China and North Korea mean that “Chinese tourists feel comfortable wanting to spend money in the North Korean economy.”
“Now in Dandong it seems that the people here are happy for North Korea because they all want to make money from the country opening up towards China,” he said.
“Previously last year, when I talked to Chinese about North Korea they would all curse it.”
The increase in visitors comes after a flurry of aviation news that reflects rapidly expanding demand for travel options between the two countries, all in the wake of the three summit meetings between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Air China, for example, announced the resumption of its three flight-per-week Beijing to Pyongyang service in early June, following a six-month hiatus of all of the airline’s service between the two countries.
And North Korean state airline Air Koryo has been granted permission to commence new services from Pyongyang to the Chinese cities of Xian and Chengdu, the company confirmed to NK News last Friday.
The DPRK state airline has never flown to either of the two new destinations, further suggesting that Chinese tourism interest in North Korea is set on the increase.
The Air China flights increase capacity into North Korea by 384 seats per week, while the new Air Koryo routes will add at least 400 seats per week if Tupolev TU-204 aircraft are used on the routes.
“The market can change rapidly and in extreme ways very quickly,” Cockerell said of the spike in Chinese demand. “This can catch the Korean travel companies off-guard for sure as they have no way to predict it, control it, influence it really.”
Main picture: NK News