The Chinese border city of Dandong will open its first route for road trips to North Korea next month, as a tourism official hinted that the itinerary will be more diverse.
You Zejun, chief of the Dandong tourism bureau in Liaoning province, said the new package for mainland tourists in June would be different from another road-trip route starting in Jilin province, as Dandong’s would feature “many other attractions”, some of which have never been open to tourists before, according to Xinhua.
The first route was approved three years ago and starts in Jilin’s Hunchun city. But it only allows visits to the Rason free economic zone and its seaside areas, in northeastern North Korea.
Rason is open to both Western and mainland tourists. Groups are typically shown around factories, markets, seafood restaurants and unspoilt beaches. Rason’s Emperor Resort & Casino has been a particular favourite for hundreds of thousands of mainlanders.
You, however, did not specify the new destinations on the new route from Dandong.
You told Xinhua that concerned agencies were finalising some details and the route’s opening date would be announced soon.
However tour agencies were not optimistic about the road trips' quality.
“We’ve heard of this news too, but don’t think it will actually happen in June because they have been ‘planning this’ since last year,” said a staff member at Dandong Chosun Tour Service.
“We don’t expect customers will be fond of this trip, because there won’t be any freedom. North Korea for sure will assign someone to travel with them," the employee said.
"The reason why people want to drive is because they want enjoy the freedom ... It’s just a difference of travelling in a car and a bus."
“I’ve also heard the feedback of the road trip isn’t that good in Hunchun, although they’ve been doing that for years,” said the staff member.
A group must be at least six people and is provided two cars. One Chinese and one North Korean tour guide are tasked to follow behind the two vehicles.
“[It's not that many people choose to drive there because the application and cross-border process is quite complicated. And they can only go to Rason," a female employee from Comfort Travel Service in Yanbian, the Korean Autonomous Prefecture, said.
For the Dandong trip, mainland travellers must submit their documents – including their driver’s licence – to a Dandong travel agency at least one week before the trip. You said the processing time takes about two days.
North Korea has been open to tourists since 1987, but was only in the past few years that the reclusive state has allowed visitors to arrive in significant numbers. Nearly 60,000 trips are made annually from Dandong to North Korea, according to recent data.
Road trips to North Korea are a rare privilege for mainlanders, who are among the few nationalities allowed relatively freer access to the Hermit Kingdom.
Travellers from Dandong must head to North Korea by train and travel agencies offer one-day or multiple-day trips, a tourism bureau employee said.
Latest statistics on travel to North Korea are scant, but it is estimated that 250,000 tourists visit every year - a majority of which are mainland Chinese. According to the Chinese Ministry of Tourism, 237,400 Chinese travelled to North Korea in 2012, a 22.5 per cent year-on-year increase.