March 05, 2015

TOKYO (AP) After lifting travel restrictions it imposed because of concerns over the Ebola virus, North Korea says foreigners can now take part in one of its most popular tourist events - the annual Pyongyang marathon, a travel agency said Thursday.

Even though no cases of Ebola had been reported anywhere near North Korea, the country shut out foreign tourists in October with some of the strictest Ebola regulations in the world, including saying that only local runners would be allowed into the marathon in April.

But Uri Tours, one company that takes tourists into North Korea, said on its website Thursday that it had been informed that North Korean authorities had ''decided to re-open the doors to foreign amateur runners for the 2015 Pyongyang Marathon.''

Earlier this week North Korea lifted its restrictions on travelers that virtually closed its borders to foreigners last October, halting all non-essential visas and requiring those few foreigners allowed in to undergo three weeks of quarantine. The rules applied to diplomats, NGO workers and even senior North Korean officials returning from overseas trips.

The Uri Tours statement said that registration for the April 12 race had been extended to March 20.

Last year's race through the streets of Pyongyang, including a 10-kilometer (6-mile) competition and a half marathon along with the full course, was opened up to foreign recreational runners for the first time and was a big success. Elite runners from around the world are usually brought in for the main event, but it was not immediately known if there is enough time to arrange that this year.

Known officially as the Mangyongdae Prize International Marathon, the race is sanctioned as a bronze-label event by the International Association of Athletics Federations and has been held annually for 27 years. It is held in conjunction with a series of sporting competitions, arts festivals and cultural events marking the birthday of North Korea's founder, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.

North Korea has made a concerted effort to bolster its tourist trade in recent years by setting up special tourism zones and developing scenic areas and recreational facilities. Tens of thousands of Chinese tourists visit each year, according to Koryo Tours, another company running trips into North Korea, while tourists from other countries are rarer.

North Korean media have suggested Ebola was created by the U.S. military as a biological weapon.

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