N. Korea cruises, U.S. not onboard

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North Korea might be known more for gunboats than passenger ships, but that didn't stop national tourism authorities from launching a first-ever leisure cruise on Sept. 1.

The inaugural 21-hour sailing, from the port of Rason to the resort area of Mount Kumgang -- recently confiscated by Pyongyang from its South Korean developers and operators-- might have garnered North Korea some global media attention. For agents, however, it's unlikely to result in a spurt in leisure bookings to the isolated communist state, said a source familiar with the destination.

That's because interest is limited, access is still tightly controlled by the North Korean government and likely customers are less prone to use agents. Organized group visits can only be booked via a handful of authorized foreign tour operators, such as Asia Pacific Travel of Kenilworth, Ill.; Beijing-based Koryo Tours; and Regent Holidays in the U.K., and most of that business comes direct from consumers.

"There are probably only 300 to 500 American tourists visiting [North Korea] in a given year," said the industry source, who requested anonymity. "Also, very few of the people who go -- I estimate less than 5% per year -- use travel agents to book."

Travelers interested in North Korea tend to mirror the "early adopters" of Internet commerce, who used the Web to research destinations and then book as much of a trip directly as possible, the source added.

So, although North Korea reportedly plans to begin offering repeat leisure cruises next year -- replacing the hastily renovated, 40-year-old vessel that hosted 130-plus foreign journalists and (mostly Chinese) tour operators this month with a leased ship accommodating up to 1,000 people -- U.S. cruisers, or even U.S. travel agents on a familiarization sailing, are among the least likely passengers.

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