Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The World's Least Luxurious Cruise Ship

The North Korean cruise ship Mangyongbong
USA Today: There was karaoke and a buffet, but some of the bathrooms lacked water and some of the passengers slept on mattresses on the floor.

North Korea's first cruise ship set sail last week with 130 or so passengers, most of them Chinese tour operators and foreign journalists traveling on a junket, an attempt by the poverty-stricken pariah state to woo visitors – and foreign currency.

Different? Yes. But certainly not everyone's cup of tea.

"A lot of people like going to obscure places. And this is the most obscure part of a very obscure country in tourism terms -- the least visited part of the least visited country," Simon Cockerell head of the Koryo Group, a Beijing-based tour operator specializing in North Korea, told AFP.

The newly refurbished, yet reportedly rusty, 39-year-old Man Gyong Bong, a former ferry, made the 21-hour cruise from the coastal city of Rason to the resort area of Mount Kumgang. The region, regaled as the Korean Peninsula's most scenic spot, has recently re-opened to U.S. visitors and will once again be an option on itineraries offered by Chicago-based Asia Pacific Travel, the only U.S. company with a direct license from the North Korean government to operate tours there.

The mountain resort opened in 1998 with financing from South Korea and the prospect of thawing the freeze that has existed between the two Koreas since 1953. A series of problems – including the shooting death of a South Korean tourist in 2008 by a North Korean guard – didn't help business. Then last month, the North Koreans seized the resort's assets. Now they're actively seeking Chinese visitors, London's Daily Mail reports.

Tourists of any nationality are allowed to visit the area as long as the trip is arranged through an approved tour company – and visitors leave their mobile phones at home.

'"Any country, people from America, Japanese, Singaporean can come to Rason, that's the reality today… " The DailyMail quoted Hwang Chol-nam, the city's vice mayor as saying.

Americans comprise a tiny segment of foreign visitors to North Korea, whose tourist scene isn't exactly robust. But 2012, the 100th anniversary of the birth of "Eternal President" Kim Il Sung (which could spark some spectacular public spectacles) could be an opportune time to visit. Asia Pacific Travel has just released its 2012 tour schedule and will include three- and four-day options to visit Mount Kumgang --- or Diamond Mountains. Previously, visits from American tourists to the nation were limited to five days, the tour operator says. Unfortunately, Americans still aren't allowed to take the train into North Korea from China (they have to fly), making the trip pricier than some.

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