North Korea has banned all foreign tourists from visiting the country over concerns about the Ebola virus.
“The country’s closed,” a Beijing-based travel agency specializing in North Korea quoted the state-run Korean International Travel Company as saying in a “panicked” phone call on Thursday, according to the South China Morning Post. “All borders will be totally sealed,” the travel agency added.
The news has been confirmed by other Chinese travel agencies who specialize in facilitate trips to North Korea by foreign tourists.
The complete ban on tourism will go into effect on Friday and will be continued indefinitely. It is possible that businessmen and diplomats will still be allowed in the country during the ban. Beijing-based officials from North Korea’s state-owned airline Air Koryo, reportedly said that no flights to North Korea have been canceled at this time. .
There have been no known cases of Ebola inside North Korea thus far, although there have been signs that Pyongyang is especially concerned about an Ebola outbreak inside the reclusive country. Gareth Johnson, who works at Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based travel agency specializing in North Korea, said, “Three days ago, they said that anybody who’s been to West Africa would have to provide a doctor’s certificate stating that they don’t have Ebola… And then today, they just said no foreign tourists at all.”
Reuters quoted North Korea’s state media, the Korean Central News Agency, as saying in a Korean-language report on Thursday that “travelers and materials are undergoing more thorough checks and quarantine at airfields, trading ports and border railway stations than ever before.” The article apparently did not mention the ban on tourism, however.
North Korea has a history of acting with extreme caution when it comes to international pandemics. For example, it closed all its borders in 2003 to prevent a SARS outbreak despite not a single case being reported in the Hermit Kingdom. That ban was in effect for around four months before normal operations were resumed.
On the one hand, the extreme caution makes sense given that North Korea’s medical system is primitive compared to modern standards. In addition, sealing the borders of North Korea is less costly for the country than a move to close the borders of most other countries would be given the DPRK’s reclusiveness.
Still, under the rule of Kim Jong-un, the North Korean government has given attracting foreign tourism a higher priority as a way to increase the amount of hard currency the government has at hand. For example, Kim Jong-un had the Masikryong Ski Resort built partially to attract foreign tourists to the country. North Korea has also begun offering tailored trade packages intended to attract certain types of foreigners such as military enthusiasts.
Earlier this year, the Choson Sinbo, a news outlet affiliated with the pro-North Korean General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, reported that tourism to North Korea was up 20 percent in the first six months of 2014 compared to a year earlier.
“The amount of foreigners looking to visit Choson (North Korea) is continuing to increase. . . . [and] according to Choson International Travel Agency President Ham Jin, the number of foreign tourists has increased by 20 percent over the previous year in just the first six months of 2014,” the article stated.
North Korea doesn’t release actual numbers on the number of tourists who visit the country each year, but a Reuters’ investigation earlier this year estimated that as many as 6,000 Westerners now visit North Korea annually, compared to just 700 a decade ago.