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Pyongyang's Mansudae monument — Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen
BEIJING — "This summer, cross the world's most difficult border and visit a country with the highest index of happiness and security" reads the advertisement of the travel agency in Taiyuan, in the remote western Chinese province of Shanxi. "Experience the China we used to know!"
On offer is an organized five-day tour to North Korea.
According to a Chinese-language report from Voice of America, following a rush in recent years to South Korea, it is now North Korea's turn to be the hot destination for Chinese tourists. These tours are typically organized as charter flights on Air Koryo, the one and only North Korean airline, explains Liang Hongen, the manager of the Taiyuan travel agency.
Air Koryo was founded in 1953, but only has around a dozen aircraft — some of which don't even fly. Skytrax, a UK aviation consulting firm which reviews and rates airlines, has given the company the worst ranking for each of the last five years, VOA reports.
But now, Chinese tour operators are advertising "Kim Jong-un"s private jet" and boasting "the prettiest flight attendants." Curiosity is a key motivation for Chinese visitors to tour this closed-off neighbor, together with a strange sense of nostalgia. "I liked experiencing the feeling of going back in time and reliving the China of decades ago," said one visitor.
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Aboard an Air Koryo aircraft — Photo: Kristoferb
Another Chinese visitor added, "After all, North Korea isn't all that different from China. Apart from the material differences, the two countries' spiritual core is basically the same. Pyongyang is not the Beijing of the 1980s — it's the Beijing of today stripped of its neon lights," he wrote.
Chinese visitors stay in the best hotels in Pyongyang and visit places with important political connotations, under the guidance of a North Korean political supervisor. They visit the architectural grandeur of the residence of the country's first leader Kim Il-sung, and can also lay flowers at the Mansudae Grand Monument, where the two colossal statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il stand tall.
There are also visits to the Tower of the Juche Idea, a monument built to celebrate Kim Il-sung's 70th birthday. And for Chinese visitors in particular, a stop at the Friendship Tower that commemorates the Sino-North Korean bond forged during the Korean War, is a must.
North Korea has recently allowed an influx of Chinese tourists, accounting for 90% of the country's mere 100,000 visitors per year, to enjoy half-day tours across the border, visiting the Sinuiju tourist complex without a passport.
Foreign visitors of the country can pay in foreign currency, including the Chinese RMB, for their local consumption. North Korea, facing ever tougher economic sanctions, is now relying even more on tourists from its neighbor and only important ally, China, to bring in a bit of foreign capital.