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Is North Korea open to travelers? No, but it may also depend on China

In 2008, the national anthems of North Korea and the United States rang out throughout the East Pyongyang Grand Theater, echoing hopes of a thawing relationship between the countries.

The curtain has long since closed on these hopes.

The historic concert, performed by the New York Philharmonic, is one of Mark Edward Harris’ favorite moments during his 10 voyages to the ‘Hermit Kingdom’.

Harris, a Los Angeles-based photographer, told CNBC he hopes to return to North Korea soon.

Covid holdouts in Asia – like Japan and Hong Kong – have eased border restrictions, but North Korea is expected to stick to its rules firmly.

The New York Philharmonic performs in Pyongyang, North Korea on February 26, 2008.

Mark Edward Harris | News from Getty Images | Getty Images

In addition, the reopening of North Korea depends on two countries – China and Russia. Travelers wishing to visit it often have to enter through them.

Even if North Korea were to open tomorrow, “there is no option available,” said Simon Cockerell, general manager of Koryo Tours, which specializes in North Korean tourism. He referred to the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine and China’s strict border closures.

The reopening of North Korea’s border “depends entirely on” how China reopens to foreign travelers, said Rowan Beard, tour manager at Young Pioneer Tours.

“The majority of tourists traveling to North Korea go straight through China,” he said.

Unless China issues tourist visas or allows tourists to transit, it will be impossible for Chinese-based westerners to travel to Pyongyang, agreed Rayco Vega, general manager of travel agency KTG Tours.

The demand never stopped

Even as North Korea retreated into its shell during the pandemic, demand for visits never waned, according to multiple travel agencies.

“There’s always been solid demand, and maybe it’s still pent-up at this point,” Cockerell said.

North Korean tours account for more than 90% of Koryo’s earnings, he said.

A performance at the Mangyongdae School Children’s Palace in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Mark Edward Harris | News from Getty Images | Getty Images

Beard agreed, saying travelers still send requests to visit North Korea.

“I get emails every day from those asking if North Korea has reopened and if they can go,” he said. “They’re on the waiting list and once it’s open again, it’s first come, first served.”

North Korea’s tourism revenue increased by around 400% between 2014 and 2019, according to North Korean analytics database 38 North.

Tours to North Korea accounted for about 75% of his company’s business before the pandemic, Beard said. He organized trips for about 1,200 tourists in 2019, including mostly Australians, British, Canadians, Dutch and Germans, he said.

“We could have taken more, but demand for trips to North Korea was also high in the Chinese market, making flight and train tickets incredibly limited,” he said.

“One of the last countries to let travelers in”

With China still sticking to its zero-Covid strategy, travel agencies who spoke to CNBC estimate North Korea could reopen to foreign tourists in 2024 — or later.

“Our guess is that the DPRK will be one of the last countries to allow travelers in,” Vega said.

Travel brochures on North Korea, Tibet and China at a booth at the CMT travel fair in January 2020.

Marijan Murat | Picture Alliance | Getty Images

“They’re going to take the most conservative line on that,” Cockerell said. “The country also shut down for months because of SARS in 2003 and Ebola in 2015, so they are acting decisively in the face of pandemics.”

He added that a “relaxed, European-style attitude” towards travelers would not materialize anytime soon, and expects strict controls to remain in place even when it reopens.

Beard said he believes North Korea’s reopening will be “an arduous task”, plagued by Covid testing, tracking apps and face mask rules, even if the “rest of the world will have largely moved on”.

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