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Colin Zwirko is an NK News correspondent based in Seoul.
The number of Chinese tourists visiting North Korea has surged in recent months, sources told NK News this week, amid ongoing enforcement of a measure limiting travelers from China to 1000 entries into the country per day.
In one notable example, the number of Chinese tourists visiting the joint security area (JSA) within the demilitarized zone (DMZ) on May 19 reached around 1600 people, according to a source familiar with the North Korean travel industry.
This represents double the highest one-day total to the JSA of around 800 experienced last year during the North’s September 9 Foundation Day holiday, the source continued.
The groups arrived in 72 buses starting in the early morning, they said, adding the figures were originally provided by North Korean officials.
“Busiest day I’ve ever seen at the DMZ,” the source said. “And it’s becoming the norm.”
Tour manager with Koryo Tours Simon Cockerell also told NK News this week that “every day there are armies of Chinese tourists” at the popular tourist attraction.
“If we have tourists going there from Pyongyang in the morning, we simply have them leave earlier than the Chinese groups to get there first and then not get stuck in the line,” he said.
Western tour groups, the other source said, have been leaving Pyongyang early in the morning “an hour and a half before the usual time” to beat the crowds at the DMZ.
Elliott Davies from Uri Tours provided similarly high figures, saying that “at this time, there are between 1000 and 2000 Chinese tourists visiting the DMZ each day.”
Western tour groups generally operate under separate guidelines from the North Koreans than Chinese groups, in part due to the large disparity in numbers of tourists.
One difference established recently is a limit of 1000 individual entries per day being enforced specifically on groups coming from Chinese-operated tour companies.
Cockerell said an individual in the North Korean tourism industry told him “the 1000 per day limit is indeed being enforced,” established in order to address “great pressure on hotels, the DMZ, anywhere that needs to host the larger numbers of Chinese tourists.”
According to the source, the major tourist hotels in Pyongyang such as the Koryo, Yanggakdo, Sosan, Chongnyon, and Ryanggang all appeared to be full of tourists in mid-May judging from the higher-than-usual number of rooms with the lights on at night.
They also said there are “lots of new Chinese tour” companies entering the market this year, pointing to one from Harbin catering exclusively to locals as a particularly surprising case, bringing in over 50 tourists by train around the time of the Pyongyang Marathon in April.
In terms of the cause of the influx, Cockerell said that North Korean partners have expressed their understanding that it may be due to a more positive Pyongyang-Beijing atmosphere following four summits between the leaders of the two countries since last year.
But Davies told NK News the higher numbers of Chinese tourists were “not particularly” higher than last year, saying that “after the partial bans imposed on Chinese tourists in 2017/18 came to an end, there was a surge in Chinese visitors which set a new status quo for tourist volume to the DMZ.”
Another rule being enforced, Cockerell said, is “the requirement for Chinese tourists to attend the Mass Games (when it is on).”
Daily NK last week released a copy of a notice the North’s Korea International Travel Company (KITC) sent to Chinese tour companies, requiring for “the first time” that tourists purchase mass games tickets upfront before receiving their visas to enter the country.
Western tourists, on the other hand, continue to be allowed to purchase tickets at the May Day Stadium just prior to entering on the day of the event, while another western tour company representative told NK News last week their tourists in the country may also opt not to attend.
Cockerell told NK News there are only rumors at the moment, but that the event could restart later this month or early July.
Young Pioneer Tours (YPT) also tweeted on Wednesday that their “sources in Pyongyang report that it’s ‘80% certain’ the Mass Games will return on June 21st.”
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: NK News