By James Pearson
SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea will offer helicopter sightseeing tours of its capital, Pyongyang, starting from this month, tourist agencies specializing in trips to the isolated country told Reuters on Thursday.
North Korea does not publish tourist numbers but an estimated 6,000 Westerners visit the country each year, according to tour companies. The vast majority of tourists are from neighboring China.
"We'll swoop around the 105-story Ryugyong Hotel, do a low fly-by of the Taedong River past the Juche tower, and get a great glimpse of May Day stadium - the world's largest stadium," Rowan Beard of China-based Young Pioneer Tours, which was offered the tours by state airline Air Koryo, told Reuters.
Tourists will be able to strap themselves into an aging Mil Mi-17 - a Soviet-era military transport helicopter known for its small, porthole-like windows. Western travel firms are offering the flight as an optional extra, costing around 180 euros ($195), on trips to North Korea.
The Mi-17 is used by North Korea's military, but has been chartered by tourists in the past to fly from Pyongyang to provincial towns and cities.
Air Koryo is also offering flights over the capital in an antique Antonov 24 - a 1950s Soviet propeller passenger plane.
The helicopter tour will also buzz over a vegetable farm and a monument honoring the ruling Workers' Party, said Simon Cockerell of Beijing-based Koryo Tours.
"The plan to use Air Koryo helicopters and small aircraft has been a long-gestating project," said Cockerell, adding that the agency had been pushing for permission for the project for a few years.
Tourists will be allowed to take photographs during the flights which will last 30 to 40 minutes, he said.
Since coming to power in 2012, leader Kim Jong Un has tried to draw more visitors to North Korea.
He has also built a series of small runways long enough to land light, private aircraft next to some of his palaces, satellite imagery shows.
(Reporting by James Pearson; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)