On the piste in North Korea: Regime's luxury ski resort opens to visitors

Skiing is not the first thing that immediately springs to mind when thinking about North Korea. But a luxury resort in the isolated nation is now receiving visitors.

Located in Masik, Kangwon province, the hotel and resort officially opened January 1 after reportedly encountering a number of setbacks.

Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours was one of the first visitors invited to the resort -- representing one of the few foreign tour companies operating in North Korea.

Cockerell shared his surreal experience on the company's blog, recounting some surprise encounters.

"On my arrival at Masik on Jan 12th who was I to immediately run into but Dennis Rodman!," wrote Cockerell. The former NBA star was visiting the resort after his much-publicized and controversial basketball match to mark Kim Jong Un's birthday.

Another interesting encounter was with North Korea's latest pop music phenomenon, a 20-member girl group called "Moranbong Band," who were supposedly hand-picked by Kim himself.

"Women copy their hairstyles, men follow them for other reasons. They were here skiing and all seemed very nice and charming, sadly for our single guides they weren't around the hotel bars in the evening though," said Cockerell.

'Fancy and comfortable'

The resort's entrance fee has not yet been fixed, but Cockerell estimates it will probably soon be set at around €30 ($41) a day without rentals, which will cost around another €12.

The hotel is "very fancy and comfortable," and features 120 rooms housed in two buildings, a swimming pool, bars, cafes, billiard tables, a karaoke room, a steam room and a dry sauna.

There are 11 runs including two beginner slopes, local tour guides who speak English but don't ski and a large number of ski instructors available.

While the ski resort is expected to draw some foreign interest, the resort is "clearly built for locals," said Cockerell.

"The number of local Korean skiers here was also a great surprise, considering that prior to a fortnight ago there was just one ski slope in the country, and in a very remote and hard to reach area," he said.

Foreign visitors cannot call and book the hotel, but must be part of a tour group package via companies such as Koryo.

"We're waiting for a review from diplomatic corp in Pyongyang -- they know about it, but they need to look into it further," said Cockerell about their plans for offering a Masik ski tour package for foreign tourists.

Controversy

"We're well aware of the controversies surrounding this ski resort, that is is a highly expensive construction project which many see as economically doubtful and emblematic of recent building developments in the country," he wrote on the Koryo Tours blog.

The resort has been scrutinized from conception to construction. Austrian and French companies declined to sell lifts to North Korea while the Swiss government blocked a potential sale from a Swiss company, reported The Washington Post, due to the new U.N. sanctions blocking the sale of luxury goods to North Korea that were imposed in March. The ski lifts currently in place at Masik were made in China.

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