SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea will reopen some of its domestic scheduled air routes for the first time in years, a China-based tour operator said on Thursday, another sign of moves to bolster tourism in the isolated country.
North Korea suffers from chronic fuel shortages, but has imported large quantities of jet fuel and gasoline from China in the first five months of this year, according to data compiled by Reuters.
"Regular flights like this have not been scheduled before - at least not in the six years we've been doing this," said Troy Collings of Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based company that specialises in taking Western tourists to North Korea.
North Korea's national airline Air Koryo will start operating the flights from mid-July, Collings said.
Foreign tourists have previously had to charter ageing Soviet-era planes to fly between cities which can take up to two days to reach by rail or road.
The vast majority of tourists to North Korea are from China, with 237,000 visitors from the country in 2012, nearly double the level from 2010, according to Chinese data.
While North Korea does not publish tourist numbers, travel agencies estimate as many as 6,000 Westerners visit North Korea every year, compared to just 700 a decade ago. Most are adventure-seekers curious about life in the authoritarian state, and ignore critics who say their dollars are propping up a repressive regime. [ID:nL4N0OR0FA]
Like the country's sprawling railroad network, the flights will likely be open to local officials and North Koreans with work or business interests in other cities.
North Korea has stepped up investment in tourism infrastructure under Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2011 when his father Kim Jong Il died, including the construction of a new ski resort near the country's east coast and waterparks in the capital, Pyongyang.
North Koreans require a state-issued travel permit to travel internally, although those with money are able to bribe their way on or off trains and through internal checkpoints between rural provinces.
(Reporting By James Pearson; Editing by Tony Munroe and Jeremy Laurence)