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Monday August 19, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Monday August 19, 2013 MYT 9:30:53 AM
Live music: Some of the ship's female crew performing popular North Korean songs with Pyongyang-styled dances.-The Straits Times/ Asia News Network.
GIANT speakers thump out club hits as the deejay bellows: “Everybody get on the dance floor!”
The nightspot is a boarded-up swimming pool on a ship sailing in North Korean waters. The groovers are mainly middle-aged men and women wearing pins featuring pictures of the late North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
Conspicuously missing was the beat of South Korean popstar Psy’s Gangnam Style.
“We’re not allowed to play that one,” explains Danny Tay, the 46-year-old Singaporean who owns the ship.
His Royale Star was the only ship permitted to ply North Korea’s first commercial cruise route running between northeastern Rajin port and the scenic southeastern Mount Kumgang resort.
Since getting its licence in February, it has made three trips.
Formerly a gaming ship in Singapore waters, the 138m-long vessel is no luxury liner, but a big improvement on the previous ship approved to ply the same route, the Mangyongbyong, with its bare minimum of amenities.
The Royale Star’s bathrooms are functioning, for starters, and all passenger cabins on its nine decks come with bunks, allowing for up to 250 passengers, with room for 250 crew. There’s also a karaoke lounge, a duty-free shop, a small casino, a massage parlour and a hair and nail salon.
The Pyongyang government representative overseeing the operations on board told The Sunday Times: “Customers seem happier with the ‘Royale Star’ than with the ship before, so our government is pleased with its crew and Singaporean management... This cruise is important to developing our tourism, and we want to give more people a taste of North Korea.”
So how did a Singaporean and his modest vessel end up promoting tourism in reclusive North Korea? Tay says that he made the first move last year after learning that North Korea had a cruise route.
A primary school dropout who worked his way up the marine industry and who acquired the Royale Star in 2011 under his British Virgin Islands-registered company, Everis Capital Holdings, he approached North Korean officials to pitch his idea and the deal was sealed at the end of last year.
“It’s been a dream to venture into North Korea since I was sent to repair a ship’s elevators in North Korean waters back in 1996,” said Tay.
“I don’t speak the language but saw an opportunity and the untapped potential in cruises there.”
The cruise was being marketed as a way for foreigners to visit one of the world’s most secretive countries.
Several passengers on board during its latest trip at the end of last month had told The Sunday Times that curiosity had indeed prompted their travels.
The five-day, four-night 4,000 yuan (RM2,132) cruise was targeted mainly at foreigners.
Those who want to join the cruise must approach the vessel’s management directly, or sign up at the Royale Star booth in Rajin port. — The Straits Times / Asia News Network
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