North Korea, running scared from Ebola, bans foreigners from marathon

An agency specialising in North Korean tours says that North Korea has banned foreign runners from participating in an international marathon scheduled to be held in Pyongyang this April, citing fears about the spread of the deadly Ebola virus.

PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA (KRT) – North Korea has banned foreign runners from participating in an international marathon scheduled to be held in the capital in April, citing fears about the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, agencies specialising in North Korea tours said on Monday (February 23).

North Korea is thousands of miles from the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and has reported no cases of the virus, which has killed more than 9,000 people.

Nonetheless, its borders have remained closed to foreign tourists since last October, for fear the virus might spread, and it imposes a strict 21-day quarantine for foreign aid workers and diplomats, who have been told to stay in embassy compounds.

“This morning at 9:30 (01:30 GMT), we were rung up by our North Korean counterpart, and they rang up and said, because of Ebola, we’re not taking any foreign runners into the country. And so we had 500 runners all ready, amateur to sort of semi-professional, they’ve all been cancelled. Plus, all the professional runners that they have for the marathon, they’ve also been told they can’t come. So it’s an internal run. I think there will only be Koreans on the podium this time,” said Nick Bonner, director of Beijing-based Koryo Tours.

Young Pioneer Tours, another China-based tour agency which takes Western tourists into North Korea, confirmed the ban.

Pyongyang, the isolated and secretive country’s capital, has held an international marathon most years since 1981. Foreign amateurs were allowed to compete for the first time last year.

“So they’re very, very careful, if you’d like…there are other words I’d use, but particularly careful with the threat of the virus getting into the country. And that makes perfect sense. Its medical system there just couldn’t cope simply. So (other than) the Ebola, I have no reason, no other reason to think that it is because of the Ebola crisis. I think they’ve taken it to the extreme, and it is a great pity they’re stopping an event like this, and also stopping tourism, because as we are all aware in the West, the (Ebola) situation is under control,” Bonner said

Koryo Tours had been selling tours, which included the marathon, for between 790 euros ($899) and 1,690 euros.

North Korea has also cancelled its annual ‘Mass Games’ event this year, without citing a reason, travel agencies said.

The summer event, which features thousands of athletes and schoolchildren in tightly choreographed displays, is another major attraction on North Korea’s tourist calendar.

North Korea has strictly enforced its Ebola counter-measures. Earlier in February, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a note warning foreign diplomats under quarantine not to hold any meetings or parties.

Bonner said he has heard that North Korean authorities might announce the re-opening of its borders to foreign tourists at the end of February. He added that authorities have advised Koryo Tours not cancel their tours scheduled for March.

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