ON BOARD MAN GYONG BONG, North Korea: It has karaoke and fresh coffee, but the bathrooms on the lower decks are out of water and some guests sleep on the floor.
Welcome aboard North Korea’s first cruise ship.Keen to boost tourism and earn much-needed cash, authorities in the impoverished nation have decided to launch a cruise tour from the rundown northeastern port city of Rajin to the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang.
In a highly unusual move, the reclusive regime invited more than 120 journalists and Chinese tour operators on board the newly renovated, 39-year-old Man Gyong Bong ship for a trial run of the 21-hour journey.
The vessel left one of Rajin’s aging piers Tuesday to the sound of rousing music, as hundreds of students and workers holding colorful flowers stood in line and clapped in unison.
“The boat was only renovated one week ago,” said Hwang Chol Nam, vice mayor of the Rason special economic zone, as he sat on the top deck at a table filled with bottles of North Korean beer, a large plate of fruit, and egg and seafood dishes.
“But it has already made the trip to Mount Kumgang and back. I told people to test the ship to make sure it was safe,” said the 48-year-old, dressed in a crisp suit adorned with a red pin sporting late leader Kim Il-Sung’s portrait.
The project is the brainchild of North Korea’s Taepung International Investment Group and the government of Rason, a triangular coastal area in the northeast that encompasses Rajin and Sonbong cities, and borders China and Russia.
Set up as a special economic zone in 1991 to attract investment to North Korea, it never took off due to poor infrastructure, chronic power shortages and a lack of confidence in the reclusive regime.
Now though, authorities are trying to revive the area as the North’s economy falters under the weight of international sanctions imposed over the regime’s pursuit of ballistic missiles and atomic weapons.
The country is desperately poor after decades of isolation and bungled economic policies, and is grappling with persistent food shortages.
In Rason, Hwang said authorities had decided to focus on three areas of growth – cargo trade, seafood processing and tourism.
North Korea has only been open to Western tourists since 1987 and remains tightly controlled, but more destinations are gradually opening up to tour groups keen to see the country for themselves.
Mount Kumgang, though, is at the heart of a political dispute between North and South Korea after a tourist from the South was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008.
And Rason, where the cruise begins, is a poor area. The tours are tightly monitored, and the only brief contact with locals is with guides, tourist shop owners and hotel employees.
Visitors can expect only brief glimpses of everyday life through the windows of tour buses, as locals – many dressed in monochrome clothing – cycle past or drive the occasional car in otherwise quiet streets.
Small apartment blocks, many of them run down, are interspersed with monuments to the glory of the country’s leaders.
A portrait of current leader Kim Jong-Il and his late father Kim Il-Sung greets visitors as they walk through the vast lobby of the large, white hotel in Rajin. “The book is a silent teacher and a companion to life,” reads a quotation from the late Kim, hung over glass cases full of books about North Korea, with titles like “The Great Man Kim Jong-Il” and “Korea – a trailblazer.”
The rooms are spartan but clean. But there is no Internet connection anywhere in the area, and the phone lines are unreliable and expensive. Foreign mobile phones are confiscated by tour guides as travelers enter the country.
Hwang said the government in Rason was trying to address communication problems and had signed a 26-year exclusive agreement with a Thai firm to set up Internet in the area.
He acknowledged, however, that non-business related websites would likely be blocked, with the media tightly controlled in North Korea.
Many of Rason’s tourists come from neighboring China, and the area sees an average of 150 travelers from China every day during the summer peak season.
One Chinese national from the southeastern province of Fujian who gave only his surname, Li, said he had come to North Korea after a business meeting on the Chinese side of the border.
“We’ve come here mainly to see what changes there have been compared to our country … I like to go to places I’ve never been to before,” he said, standing in front of a huge portrait of Kim Il-Sung.
Simon Cockerell, managing director of Koryo Group, a Beijing-based firm that specializes in tours to North Korea, conceded that Rason may not be everyone’s idea of a holiday, but said its attraction lay in the unknown.
“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,” he said.
Back on the boat, Chinese tour operators sang karaoke in a dining hall decked out with North Korean flags as a waitress made fresh coffee, while guests drank beer and ate dried fish at plastic tables up on deck.
Inside, some cabins were decked out with bunk beds, while others just had mattresses laid out on the floor.
Water in bathrooms on the vessel – used as a ferry between North Korea and Japan until 1992 when it started shipping cargo – was unreliable.
But Park Chol Su, vice president of Taepung, said he had big plans for the tour if it attracted enough visitors.
He wants to invite more than 100 tourist agencies from Europe in October to sample the same trip, in a bid to attract travelers from further afield.