North Korea has confirmed that the ban on foreign tourists will stay in place for one of the country’s biggest tourist draws, the Pyongyang marathon.
The annual race, set for April 12, has given tourists a rare perspective in the isolated country, allowing them to run through the capital city’s streets. But on Monday, travel agencies who operate in North Korea confirmed that Ebola fears will prevent foreign participation this year.
In October, the country shut out foreign tourists with some of the strictest Ebola regulations in the world. North Korean media have suggested Ebola was created by the U.S. military as a biological weapon.
No cases of Ebola have been reported anywhere near North Korea, but that hasn’t stopped officials from taking severe precautions.
The travel ban comes amid reports leader Kim Jong-un has called for increased combat readiness and, at a meeting of senior party and military leaders, described tensions on the peninsula as graver than ever before. North Korea has been under increasing pressure from the U.N. over its human rights record and is facing new sanctions from Washington over its alleged involvement in the massive cyberattack on Sony Pictures in December. Sony says the hack cost the company an estimated $15 million.
Nick Bonner, cofounder of Beijing-based Koryo Tours, said more than 400 foreign runners had signed up with his agency alone for the marathon. He said he was informed by officials on Monday that the race — billed as one of the most exotic marathon locales on Earth — would be open only to local runners. Another agency specializing in North Korea travel, Young Pioneer Tours, also confirmed on its website that it was canceling its tours for the event.
Bonner told the Associated Press he remains hopeful the Ebola restrictions will be lifted by the end of March.
That would be too late for foreigners hoping to run in the marathon though, as restrictions have interfered with race tour planning.
Last year’s race through the streets of Pyongyang, including a 10-kilometer (6-mile) competition and a half marathon along with the full course, was opened up to foreign recreational runners for the first time and was a big success. Elite runners from around the world are usually brought in for the main event. Bonner said they apparently won’t be allowed in this year.
Known officially as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, the race is sanctioned as a bronze-label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations and has been held annually for 27 years. It is held in conjunction with a series of sporting competitions, arts festivals and cultural events marking the birthday of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, on April 15.
Since the Ebola measures were announced last October, visas for nonessential travel have been halted and, regardless of country or region of origin, all foreigners allowed in are technically subject to quarantine under medical observation for 21 days.
That includes diplomats and international aid workers, though they are allowed to stay in their residences or diplomatic compounds. Even senior North Korean officials returning from trips abroad have been quarantined.
The restrictions have been a disaster for travel agents.
Andrea Lee, of New Jersey-based Uri Tours, said 200 runners had signed up with her agency.
“We have not been able to run tours for several months. As a small business, it’s been a difficult time,” she said. “We expect tours to resume at the latest by the summer.”
North Korea has made a concerted effort to bolster its tourist trade in recent years by setting up special tourism zones and developing scenic areas and recreational facilities.
There was even a summer camp where foreign youth could interact with local children.
Bonner said the group that had signed up for the marathon this year was the biggest his agency has put together in 10 years, and would have been one of the largest groups ever.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press
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