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Tourism in North Korea is organized by one of several state-owned tourism bureaus, including Korea International Travel Company (KITC), Korean International Sports Travel Company (KISTC) and Korean International Youth Travel Company (KIYTC). Tourism in North Korea is highly controlled by the government, which is one of the reasons it is not a frequently visited destination—between 3,000 to 4,000 Western tourists visit North Korea each year, along with thousands of Asians. Tourists must go on guided tours and must have their tour guides with them at all times. As of June 2011[update], the northern border to China has been opened and Chinese citizens are free to drive their own vehicles to Luo, a small North Korean northeast border region where they are free to explore, mingle and photograph. This is seen as a first step towards expanded tourism and development in that region. Photography and interaction with local people has historically been tightly controlled, however, from photos seen around the internet and evidence from travelers to the DPRK, those restrictions seem to have been relaxed slightly in the past few years. As of January 2013[update], foreigners are allowed to buy SIM cards at Pyongyang airport, providing access to international calling.
For westerners, there are a handful of private tour operators that help provide access to the country. Well known amongst these operators are Uri Tours (recently in the news for their role in the Dennis Rodman and Eric Schmidt trips to the DPRK), Koryo Tours (known for its DPRK-related films and strong history in the region) and Young Pioneer Tours (traditionally aimed at the budget traveler). Companies like these are full-service shops that will take care of visas, flights, etc. for a single fee. Since December 2013[update], North Korea has been open to tourists during the winter. The Masikryong Ski Resort outside Wonsan City in Kangwon Province opened in early 2014.
In principle, any person is allowed to travel to North Korea; only South Koreans and journalists are routinely denied, although there have been some exceptions to the journalists. For instance, Croatian journalists had a special access in June 2012, although their phones were confiscated and returned as they departed and had a special tour guide, and after several days of touring, wrote a newspaper story of life in North Korea. Special travel agents can help potential visitors through the bureaucratic process. Visitors are not allowed to travel outside designated tour areas without their Korean guides. Before 2010, tourists holding United States passports were not granted visas, except during the Arirang Festival mass games (아리랑 축제). U.S. citizens, journalists and citizens from other nations have also been given special permission to enter as members of the Korean Friendship Association and Choson Exchange. Citizens of South Korea require special permission from both governments to enter North Korea and are typically not granted such permission for regular tourism except in special tourist areas designated for South Koreans.
In 2002, the area around Mount Kumgang, a scenic mountain close to the South Korea border, was designated as a special tourist destination. Tours run by private companies brought thousands of South Koreans to Mount Kŭmgang every year before the suspension of tours in late 2008 due to the shooting of a South Korean tourist. When tours had not resumed by May 2010, North Korea unilaterally announced that it would seize South Korean real estate assets in the region.
In July 2005, the South Korean company Hyundai Group came to an agreement with the North Korean government to open up more areas to tourism, including Baekdu Mountain (백두산) and Kaesong (개성). Kaesong was opened to daily tours for South Korean and foreign tourists in December 2007; North Korea charged US $180 for a one-day trip. The city received several hundred tourists each week, mostly South Koreans.
The tours to Kaesong were suspended in December 2008 due to a political conflict between North and South Korean relating to propaganda balloons. The balloons, filled with information critical of Kim Jong Il and the North Korean regime, were sent into North Korea from just south of the border in South Korea. When South Korea did not respond to North Korean demands to stop the propaganda balloons, North Korea suspended the Kaesong tours. The tours to Kaesong resumed in April 2010, but were again suspended in May 2010 following the ROKS Cheonan sinking.
In April 2010, the first tourist trains from Dandong, China brought visitors to North Korea for a four-day tour. Before that, the international train from Beijing to Pyongyang was used as tourist train.
In June 2011, Chinese citizens were allowed on a self-driven tour in North Korea for the first time in history.
As of January 2012, tourists are now able to bring their own mobile phones into the DPRK, although without a North Korean SIM card (which became available to foreigners) the phone will not be able to make or receive calls. Previously foreigners had to surrender their phones at the border (or airport) before entering the country.
The number of Chinese tourists visiting North Korea fell 70 percent from 2010 to 2011. One Chinese travel agency cited the limited number of packages and restrictions on where foreign tourists can travel as the main reasons for the lack of interest. Only the capital Pyongyang and Mt. Kumgang are available on Chinese itineraries.
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