As U.S. ban on travel to North Korea kicks in, tourists say their farewells

BEIJING (Reuters) – American tourist Nicholas Burkhead said he’d be happy to return to his latest holiday destination, with its beautiful scenery, great food and friendly people.

The problem is, the destination was North Korea and a U.S. State Department ban on travel to the isolated country takes effect on Friday.

Burkhead, a 35-year-old from Tulsa, Oklahoma, was among the last American tourists to leave North Korea, landing on Thursday in Beijing.

“I was surprised at how friendly everyone was,” Burkhead said after stepping off the last scheduled flight to Beijing from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, before the U.S. travel ban kicks in.

“It was very relaxing – beautiful scenery and they fed us very well in the restaurants there, but the exchange rate wasn’t too good for the local won,” he told a waiting scrum of reporters.

Burkhead arrived in Beijing on North Korea’s state-owned Air Koryo after visiting Pyongyang as well as the city of Kaesong near the heavily armed border with South Korea. His five-day tour cost 1,850 euros ($2,200).

Other Americans on the flight included two aid workers as well as Jamie Banfill, 32, who had led tours to North Korea but was visiting this time as a tourist.

Banfill, who had made the trip to say goodbyes after regularly traveling to the North for a decade, said the travel ban short-sighted.

“It’s an extremely complex situation on the Korean peninsula and they oversimplified it,” he said.

The United States last month announced a ban on U.S. passport holders from traveling to North Korea, effective Sept. 1. Journalists and humanitarian workers are allowed to apply for exemptions under the ban, which is similar to previous U.S. restrictions on travel to Iraq and Libya.

Heidi Linton, director of Christian Friends of Korea, who has been working in North Korea for more than 20 years, told reporters she worried about the people her aid group helped, if her exemption was not granted soon.

“We started a hepatitis B program and we have 705 patients that have been started on life-saving medicine, that if they go off that medicine then their lives are in danger,” she said.

Aid workers Heidi Linton (2nd R) and Rob Robinson (R) of Christian Friends of Korea talk to the media after their arrival from Pyongyang at Beijing airport, China August 31, 2017.Thomas Peter

It was not immediately clear how many Americans had sought, or been granted, exemptions or how many were still in North Korea. An official at the state department…

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