North Korea has blocked foreign tourists from entering the country, travel operators said Wednesday, amid fears over the spread of a new coronavirus first detected in China.

Young Pioneer Tours, a China-based tour agency specializing in travel to the North, said in a notice posted on its website that the North was “temporarily” closing “its borders to all foreign tourists as a precaution” against the virus.

“Further details are yet to be confirmed by our travel partners in North Korea and we will continue to make all future announcements on our website,” the firm added.

Two other prominent Beijing-based tour agencies also issued similar statements.

Uri Tours said that future tours remained open for booking, despite uncertainty over how long the travel ban would be in place. It said its partners in Pyongyang had confirmed the ban.

“It is currently not known how long this travel suspension will last, or what protocols will be implemented,” the company stated on its website.

Koryo Tours, meanwhile, said the fact that the virus had spread to South Korea “was probably a big prompt” for the North to close its borders.

“If the Coronavirus situation calms down, then we can expect North Korea tourism to start back up again,” the group said in a statement. “If it gets worse, then this may take longer.”

The number of cases of the new virus has risen to 440 in China and the death toll has risen to nine, Chinese health authorities said Wednesday.

Deputy Director of the National Health Commission Li Bin said that the figures were current as of 12:00 a.m. Wednesday. All the deaths were in Hubei province, home to Wuhan city where the first illnesses from coronavirus were reported in late December.

Li said that marked an increase of 149 confirmed cases. He said Japan and South Korea had each confirmed one case and Thailand three. The U.S. and Taiwan also confirmed one case each Tuesday.

North Korea has not reported any confirmed cases.

The Rodong Sinmun, official newspaper of the North’s ruling party, carried an article detailing the outbreak of the virus in China and measures Beijing had taken to prevent it from spreading further.

“Harm has been reported in China as a new strain of coronavirus has recently spread quickly,” the paper said. “With regard to the fast spread of the highly contagious disease, China has been taking appropriate measures.”

North Korean state-run television had earlier reported that the isolated country was closely cooperating with the World Health Organization to stem the outbreak of the virus, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said it was closely monitoring the situation.

Tourism is one of the few North Korean sectors not subject to the international sanctions imposed, making it a crucial area for Pyongyang’s tattered economy. Most tourists enter the country through the border with China and are Chinese nationals.

North Korea closed its border to tourists for four months during the height of the Ebola epidemic in Africa from 2014 to 2015. All visitors to the country at the time were also required to spend 21 days in quarantine, including locals returning home from business trips. It put similar restrictions in place during the peak of the SARS virus outbreak in 2003.

The North’s ability to withstand a major outbreak ranks among the world’s worst, a global public health study published last October found.

The study, jointly conducted by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the nonprofit Nuclear Threat Initiative, said that “no country is fully prepared for epidemics or pandemics, and every country has important gaps to address,” but the North’s position was particularly worrisome, coming in 193rd out of 195 nations in the index.

The report examined six categories of preparedness for a potential disease outbreak or other catastrophic health event: prevention, early detection, rapid response to stop the spread, ability to treat the sick and protect health workers, commitment to improving these categories and overall vulnerability to an outbreak.

The North was near the bottom in almost all of those categories, ranking last in the “rapid response” section.

Information from AP added

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