North Korea reopens borders after Ebola travel ban

A file picture dated on June 22, 2010, shows two foreign tourists taking photos on an excursion steamer under a North Korean flag in the coastal area of the Directly Governed City of Rason in North Korea. North Korea has reopened its borders to
A file picture dated on June 22, 2010, shows two foreign tourists taking photos on an excursion steamer under a North Korean flag in the coastal area of the Directly Governed City of Rason in North Korea. North Korea has reopened its borders to tourists and lifted strict quarantine measures four months after it banned most foreign travel to the country due to fears over the deadly Ebola virus. -- PHOTO: EPA

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea has reopened its borders to tourists and lifted strict quarantine measures four months after it banned most foreign travel to the country due to fears over the deadly Ebola virus.

Tour agencies specialising in trips to the reclusive nation, said they had been told Tuesday the travel ban was over and they could resume bookings for March.

US-based Uri Tours said it had received a communication from the North's state carrier, Air Koryo, that North Korea's borders were "now open" for travel.

"According to Air Koryo, everything is back to normal!" the tour agency said in a statement.

A woman answering the phone at the Air Koryo office in Beijing told AFP: "Yes, now tourists can go." China-based Young Pioneer Tours said the North was "once again open to tourism" and the agency would start taking bookings immediately.

North Korea, which has not registered a single suspected case of Ebola, closed its borders to foreign tourists on October 24.

It also strictly enforced a 21-day quarantine period on anyone entering the country, including foreign diplomats and businessmen.

In a despatch from Pyongyang, China's official Xinhua news agency said the quarantine measures had been lifted as of Tuesday, with the exception of visitors from West Africa.

"Travellers from other parts of the world are no longer subject to the quarantine. They only need to receive a medical examination in the Pyongyang Friendship Hospital," Xinhua said, citing a notification sent to all diplomats by the North's State Emergency Anti-Epidemic Committee.

Tourism is a crucial source of hard currency for the cash-strapped North, but it seemed willing to take a financial hit to avert any chance of an Ebola outbreak that its weak health infrastructure would be totally incapable of dealing with.

Just last week it announced a ban on foreigners taking part in its annual international Pyongyang marathon in April.

North Korea has a history of shutting itself off in the face of external health threats.

In 2003, it suspended foreign tours for three months due to fears over the spread of Sars.

Ebola, one of the deadliest pathogens known to man, is spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person showing symptoms such as fever or vomiting.

More than 9,500 people have died of the disease since the west African epidemic emerged in southern Guinea in December 2013.