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View more articles by Colin Zwirko
Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
September is shaping up to be one of the biggest months for tourism to North Korea this year with many transit options to Pyongyang already fully-booked, information provided by multiple DPRK travel industry insiders suggests.
The uptick in demand will coincide with the country’s 70th National Foundation Day anniversary and related events on September 9: including the first mass games in five years and other perfomances throughout the month.
A representative for the DPRK’s national carrier Air Koryo told NK News on Tuesday that “there are no seats” remaining for the carrier’s Beijing-Pyongyang route in September.
Some tour operators also said that flights from Beijing to Pyongyang on Air Koryo were completely sold out for the month, though others said that a few options were still available.
Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours told NK News they had heard all seats were booked for this route – as did another tour company representative – while Simon Cockerell of Koryo Tours said flights for a “handful of dates” could still be purchased.
A representative from Explore North Korea, too, said all Air Koryo flights from Beijing were booked through to the 24th, after which it was still possible to book flights to Pyongyang.
Cockerell called the situation “unique” when compared to previous big-event months such as the international marathon in April, owing to the “longer period of flights/trains getting totally full.”
Air Koryo also officially operates routes to the North Korean capital from Shenyang in China and Vladivostok in Russia’s far east, which Cockerell reported were not yet sold out.
The airline also unofficially operates a twice-weekly Shanghai-Pyongyang route, though this option is still absent from their website despite regular service since the spring.
It appears this option is only available through certain tour companies, as Explore North Korea offered the Shanghai route as an existing option for September, but only through specially-arranged tours.
The Air Koryo representative said over the phone on Tuesday that the Shenyang flight details were still not final, and that they did not have information on the Shanghai route.
Two new routes from the Chinese cities of Xian and Chengdu to Pyongyang – set to begin operation in mid-July – still have not begun, the representative said, adding that no bookings are being made for these routes in September either.
The only other company operating regular flights into North Korea is Air China, and some tour company representatives said these flights were sold out for the week surrounding the September 9 national holiday.
Air China’s website, however, still shows some seats available for these dates.
With regularly scheduled service operating Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, only the Friday flight before the September 9 holiday, according to the airliner’s website, is close to selling out as of August 7.
Three tour company representatives additionally said that train ticket options were becoming increasingly scarce.
NK News was not able to independently verify train ticket availability.
The news follows reports in June of increased numbers of Chinese tourists in North Korea as relations between the two countries improved, likely linked, in part, to three state visits to China by Kim Jong Un between March and June.
NK News also learned from a source this week of a “chaotic” instance of around 1000 tourists from China visiting the North Korean side of the DMZ in a single day.
Another source stated visitor numbers had been as high as 2000 on one exceptional day.
One of the sources suggested that around a thousand were arriving in the DPRK capital everyday – not counting arrivals in Rason and Sinuiju, which were reportedly to also be high.
Meanwhile, a U.S. ban on its citizens traveling to North Korea is set to expire at the end of this month if not renewed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Edited by Oliver Hotham