Looking to Book a Cruise? North Korea Seeks Brave Tourists

 @MarkJohansonIBT on September 01 2011 1:36 PM
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    Local residents attend the departure ceremony of a cruise ship with visitors in the North Korean special economic zone of Rason, located northeast of Pyongyang August 30, 2011. Destitute North Korea's push to breathe new life into its economic relationships with China and Russia appears to be bearing fruit in the far north of the country where foreigners are busily helping to rebuild the region's creaking infrastructure. A top local official told reporters on Tuesday that China and Russia had invested heavily in the region in order to gain access to its three east coast ports in the towns of Rajin and Songbon, which are the main centers for the secretive North's Rason Special Economic Zone. REUTERS
  • North Korea Cruise (2 of 9)
    Local residents attend the departure ceremony of a cruise ship with visitors in the North Korean special economic zone of Rason, northeast of Pyongyang August 30, 2011. Destitute North Korea's push to breathe new life into its economic relationships with China and Russia appears to be bearing fruit in the far north of the country where foreigners are busily helping to rebuild the region's creaking infrastructure. A top local official told reporters on Tuesday that China and Russia had invested heavily in the region in order to gain access to its three east coast ports in the towns of Rajin and Songbon, which are the main centers for the secretive North's Rason Special Economic Zone. REUTERS
  • North Korea Cruise (3 of 9)
    Local residents wave as a cruise ship with visitors leaves the port in the North Korean special economic zone of Rason, located northeast of Pyongyang August 30, 2011. Destitute North Korea's push to breathe new life into its economic relationships with China and Russia appears to be bearing fruit in the far north of the country where foreigners are busily helping to rebuild the region's creaking infrastructure. A top local official told reporters on Tuesday that China and Russia had invested heavily in the region in order to gain access to its three east coast ports in the towns of Rajin and Songbon, which are the main centers for the secretive North's Rason Special Economic Zone. REUTERS
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Are you a cruise ship junkie? Already sailed the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, and Alaska? Looking for something new? How about North Korea?

Crippled by decades of isolation, bungled economic policies, and persistent food shortages, North Korean authorities recently decided to focus on three areas of growth: cargo trade, seafood processing, and tourism.

Attempting to cast a wider tourism net (read: begin a true tourism industry), North Korea has revamped a ferry, formerly used to shuttle passengers to and from Japan, as a leisure vessel.

This is a major move for the nation which only opened up its doors to Western tourists in 1987 and has remained tightly controlled ever since.

The 9,700-ton vessel is the brainchild of North Korea's Taepung International Investment Group and the government of Rason - a coastal region that borders Russia and China.

Rason was set up as a special economic zone in 1991 to attract foreign investment in North Korea. However, due to chronic power shortages, poor infrastructure, and a general unease about the reclusive regime, the zone never quite took off.

North Korean officials hope to change that.

People from any country - Jamaica, Japan, Singapore, people from various countries - can come to Rason and don't require a visa, Rason's vice mayor, Hwang Chol Nam told reporters at the cruise ship's inaugural event. That's the reality.

While that may be one version of the reality, tourists are required to book with approved travel agents, remain with their guides' company throughout, and leave any cellular devices behind in China.

The new vessel takes tourists from the rundown northeastern port city of Rajin to the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang.

If Mount Kumgang sounds familiar, that's because it was the site of the infamous 2008 murder of South Korean housewife Park Wang-ja. She was shot by North Korean guards on a beach near her resort. The incident effectively suspended join operations in the resort town between the communist North and capitalist South.

An area that was once seen as a symbol of cooperation is now a stark reminder of the divide between the nations that split after the 1950-1953 Korean War.

Just last month, the North claimed time had run out to resolve issues that arose after the 2008 shooting. They expelled the South's remaining workers and claimed they would start selling South Korean assets at the resort, valued at roughly $450 million.

South Korea's Hyundai Asan has invested vast swaths of money, with exclusive rights to run tours to the resort for several decades to come. The South Korean government has also invested heavily in the area, even building a meeting venue for Korean families separated during the war.

The First Journey

In a highly unusual move for the notoriously reclusive nation, the regime invited more than 120 journalists and Chinese tour operators onboard the newly-renovated Man Gyong Bong ship for a 21-hour trial run of the journey.

The North Korea Economic Watch reports that the ship was fully adorned with red posters emblazoned with the sayings of the late president Kim Il Sung.

Some passengers slept on wooden bunk beds, while others were assigned mattresses on the floor. Simple meals were reportedly served cafeteria-style on metal trays.

The ship has karaoke and fresh coffee, but the bathrooms on the lower decks are out of water, noted Marianne Barriaux of the Associated Foreign Press.

According to North Korea's official KCNA, when the ship begins its regular schedule:

The tourists will enjoy the scenic view of the East Sea of Korea and climb the mountain.

It will take 4 nights and 5 days.

The tourism including both sea and land sightseeing, the first of its kind in Korea, is drawing deep interest of foreigners.

Whether or not this will be a hit with American tourists it's hard to say - though a rush of American visitors is unlikely. A long-standing U.S. State Department travel warning says North Korea strictly monitors visitors and harshly punishes law-breakers and reminds Americans that the two countries do not have diplomatic relations.

Owners of the ship promise a more luxurious cruise liner, capable of holding up to 900 passengers, sometime next year.

While this marks Korea's first foray into the glitzy world of cruise tourism, it remains to be seen how foreign tourists will react to the new opportunity.

Make sure to click through the photos of the inaugural trip.

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