Pyongyang Marathon closed to foreign runners amid Ebola fears – tour operator

Foreign runners will not be allowed to participate in this year's Pyongyang Marathon amid continuing fears over the Ebola virus, a tour operator reported on Monday. It comes more than two months after North Korea had informed tour operators that Ebola restrictions would end in time for the event.

Koryo Tours, which is one of the few independent travel groups that organize trips to North Korea, said it received news from its North Korean partners that the Pyongyang Marathon had been closed to amateur and professional foreign runners. The event is scheduled to take place on April 12.

"It is still unclear when the borders will be reopened, but Koryo Tours was also advised not to cancel its March and April tours, and to expect an update on the border situation at the end of February," the tour operator said in an emailed statement. It added that 465 people had registered with Koryo Tours to participate in the Pyongyang Marathon.

Around 500 people were expected to sign up with Koryo Tours to participate in the marathon, far more than the 125 tourists who participated last year. The 2015 Pyongyang Marathon would have marked only the second time that Western amateurs would have been permitted to participate in the event.

"While we're disappointed that tourists will no longer be able to take part in this year's Pyongyang Marathon, we're still going ahead with our 10km (6.2 mile) fun run through Pyongyang on 2 June, in support of our ongoing charity project providing food aid to several orphanages in the country, and which our tourists will be able to take part in," said Koryo Tours co-founder and director Nick Bonner.

Bonner added: "Further, for more serious runners, Koryo Tours will, on 21 August, be exclusively hosting the first ever half-marathon around Mt Paekdu in the north-east of the country, which will be another first in terms of North Korean tourism."

North Korea virtually shut its borders in October 2014 when it notified tour operators that it would no longer accept foreign tourists, citing fears that foreigners could bring the deadly Ebola virus to the country, which has a poor medical infrastructure and would be crippled by a serious epidemic. North Korea also briefly closed its borders in May 2003 in response to the SARS outbreak in neighboring China.

The current ban on foreign tourists, which does not affect diplomats and other official business, was announced just months after Korea International Travel Agency said that the number of foreign tourists entering North Korea had jumped by 20 percent during the first half of 2014. The vast majority of foreign tourists are from China, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands a year, but the number of Westerners has also increased in recent years.

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