China has virtually lifted a ban on travel to North Korea as ties strengthened with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's two recent visits.
Chinese online travel agencies have resumed selling package tours to the North, and direct charter flights connect Chinese provincial towns with Pyongyang. The travel ban was not mandated by the UN, but China took the initiative late last year under pressure from the U.S.
Qunar, a leading Chinese online travel agency, is promoting packages that take tourists on a tour of Pyongyang, Kaesong, Mt. Myohyang and Mt. Kumgang after arriving in Pyongyang on an Air Koryo flight or by a train. They cost between 3,180 and 9,999 yuan.
Signs that China would lift the ban were already detected in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, where a dozen travel agencies began selling group tour programs to North Korea around the time of Kim's second visit to China in May.
Package tour programs to North Korea on the website of Chinese travel agency Qunar (left); A swimwear store in Pyongyang on Sunday /AFP-Yonhap
In November last year, the Chinese government banned people in the provinces except Liaoning and Jilin from traveling to the North. This happened immediately after U.S. President Donald Trump called for heavier pressure on the North during his visit to the country and a special envoy of Chinese President Xi Jinping was snubbed in Pyongyang.
At the time, the U.S. also banned Americans from traveling to the North in the wake of the death of Otto Warmbier, an American college student, after he was released from North Korean custody. The U.K. and France also issued travel advisories.
By lifting the ban, China has given a breathing space to the North Korean regime, whose other means of earning hard currency by exporting coal, minerals, seafood and textiles are blocked.
Chinese tourists are especially keen to visit the inter-Korean border and truce village of Panmunjom, the venue for the inter-Korean summit in April. A Qunar executive said, "We can also sell our programs to citizens of countries with which the North maintains diplomatic relations."
The North can now expect hard currency earnings to improve, though there are no official statistics how much it has earned from tourism. Estimates vary between US$30.69 million and $43.62 million a year before the UN began imposing sanctions, according to the Korea Maritime Institute here. About 90 percent came from Chinese tourists.
Meanwhile, China continues to ban group tours from some areas to South Korea. It has lifted a boycott only in Beijing, Shandong, Chongqing and Wuhan. Sales of tour programs through online travel agencies, charter flights and cruises to South Korea are still banned
Air Koryo will launch two charter flights a week between Chengdu and Pyongyang on June 28.