In an unprecedented publicity campaign by the reclusive regime, more than 120 journalists and Chinese tour operators were invited on board the newly-renovated, 39-year-old vessel Man Gyong Bong for a trial run from the rundown northeastern port city of Rajin to the scenic resort of Mount Kumgang (Diamond Mountain).
Reporters who took up the invitation of a 21-hour cruise said karaoke, fruit, beer and fresh coffee were available on the ship but the bathrooms on the lower decks were out of water and some guests had to sleep on the floor.
Cabin accommodation on the ship, which was previously used as a ferry between North Korea and Japan, includes bunk beds and mattresses on the floor. Some of the better furnished rooms have tables, chairs and even private wash rooms.
North Korea first opened its doors to Western tourists in 1987 and established the Rason special economic zone in 1991 to attract investment to North Korea.
However, poor infrastructure, chronic power shortages and a lack of confidence in the regime have held back any investments.
Overseeing the maiden voyage was the Vice Mayor of the Rason special economic zone, who assured passengers the ship was safe; he had ordered people to test its safety just the week before.
The cruises are a joint project between North Korea’s Taepung International Investment Group and the government of Rason, which borders China and Russia.
Mount Kumgang, however, is still attempting to recover as a tourist destination from a dispute between North and South Korea after a tourist from the South was shot dead by a North Korean soldier in 2008.