North Korea suspends foreign tourism over coronavirus fears: Tour companies

A file photo shows a tourist using binoculars to look across to North Korea from a tower built on the Chinese side of the border between Russia, China and North Korea near the town of Hunchun in China. PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (REUTERS) - Several foreign tour operators said North Korea will ban foreign tourists starting Wednesday (Jan 22) due to the spread of a new coronavirus in China, which has killed nine people and spread to several countries.

The vast majority of tourists to North Korea come from China, Pyongyang's main supporter.

Mr Cha Yeong-hyeong, head of the Dandong-based travel agency INDPRK, told Reuters the company was informed of the ban verbally by its North Korean counterpart on Tuesday.

The company was told an order banning entry of tourists from China would go into effect on Wednesday, with the restriction to last until a vaccine for the coronavirus is developed, said Mr Cha.

INDPRK has cancelled bookings and was refunding customers, but Mr Cha said he did not expect North Korea to maintain the ban for as long as it might take for a vaccine to be developed.

BTG International Travel & Tours confirmed that it had received a written message from its North Korean supplier, citing the North Korea travel administration saying customs had been closed as of Wednesday morning.

The North Korean government is preparing an official notice, and will later announce when tours can be resumed, the message said.

Two other Chinese tourism companies contacted by Reuters on Wednesday said they had not received any notice of a ban and were operating normally in North Korea.

Western tour companies based in China have also been affected by the ban.

Young Pioneer Tours said in a statement that it had been told North Korea will temporarily close its borders to all foreign tourists as a precaution against the virus, which has rapidly spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan.

"I have confirmed the DPRK will temporarily suspend all foreign tourists from entering North Korea until they feel the coronavirus is well under control," Mr Rowan Beard of Young Pioneer Tours told Reuters, referring to North Korea by the initials of its official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

"North Korea takes these risks very seriously."

Mr Simon Cockerell, manager at Koryo Tours, said they too had been told of such a move, but that the scope of the policy was not yet clear.

Fears are growing over the virus, which could be spread through human contact, with millions of Asians travelling for the Lunar New Year holiday this week.

In China, the number of confirmed cases rose to 440 on Wednesday, with at least nine deaths.

On Tuesday state media broadcast footage of an official from North Korea's health ministry discussing the outbreak in China and other countries and describing the symptoms.

He did not mention a tourism ban but said North Korea is working with the World Health Organisation to mitigate any threat from the virus.

"Many countries and governments around the world are taking measures to prevent the spread of the malicious virus," the official said.

Tourism is one of the last major ways that North Korea can legally earn foreign cash, as international sanctions restrict many other forms of business with the politically isolated country.

North Korea is estimated to earn millions of dollars from the steady flow of Chinese tourists.

South Korean budget airline T'way Air said on Tuesday it has postponed the scheduled launch of a new route to Wuhan because of concern over the spread of the new coronavirus.

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