August 31, 2011 / 1:53 PM / in 6 years

All aboard for cruising, North Korean style

<p>Local residents attend the departure ceremony of a cruise ship with visitors in the North Korean especial economic zone of Razon, northeast of Pyongyang August 30, 2011.Carlos Barria</p>

ABOARD THE MANGYONGBYONG, North Korea (Reuters) - When you think of taking a cruise, usually it's the Bahamas, Fiji or the Maldives that generally come to mind. How about North Korea?

On Tuesday, the mysterious state launched itself into the glitzy world of cruise tourism when about 130 passengers set sail from the rundown port of Rajin, near the China-Russia border, for the scenic Mount Kumgang resort near the South Korean border.

Isolated North Korea's "state tourism bureau" has teamed up with a Chinese travel company to run the country's first ever cruise aboard an aging 9,700 tonne vessel which once plied the waters off the east coast of the divided peninsula shuttling passengers between North Korea and Japan.

The ship was later used to transport cargo before Tokyo blocked its entry as part of economic sanctions over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear tests in 2006.

Some 500 North Koreans, about half dressed in dark workers clothes and the others in office and traditional attire, waved off the ship in a strictly choreographed performance on the potholed dock.

The spectators waved North Koreans flags and fake flowers, and let off a blast of paper fireworks to mark the occasion. Carnival music blared from two minivans with speakers on their roofs.

Before the setting off, the vice mayor Hwang Chol-nam of Rason City, of which Rajin port is a part, gave a speech lauding the venture as part of the region's push to attract tourism.

Hwang hailed what his city's rule which allows any nationality to visit the area visa-free. They must, however, arrange the trip through a designated tour companies.

<p>A visitor posses with a cruise ship at the port of Rason, the North Korean especial economic zone, northeast of Pyongyang August 30, 2011.Carlos Barria</p>

"Any country, people from America, Japanese, Singaporean can come to Rason, that's the reality today, and that's the same for the Kumgang special economic zone," he told reporters aboard the vessel.

"If any foreign companies have an interest in conducting tours they just need to contact our companies."

The region has this year stepped up its campaign to woo foreign capital and in June broke ground on joint project with China to develop the area as special economic zone in attempt to make much needed hard currency.

Slideshow (10 Images)

The secretive North has been squeezed by international sanctions for its pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The North's move to attract foreign tourists comes amid a dispute with South Korea over their stalled joint tour program at Mount Kumgang, just north of the border with rival South Korea.

Last week the North expelled the last remaining South Koreans at the resort and said it would now sell off South Korean assets valued at nearly $320 million in a move that prompted Seoul on Tuesday to ask others not to invest.

Earlier this month, a New York-based company said it had signed a deal with North Korea to run tours to the Kumgang resort.

The bizarre "test" sail was scheduled to take about 18 hours. A second trip is planned for businessmen next month.

The cruise, which sails the length of North Korea's picturesque eastern coastline, will appeal not only to the adventurous seeking "something different," but also to gamblers wanting to try their luck at the North's casinos in Rason and Kumgang.

Editing by David Chance

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