(Corrects location of Burkhead’s home in third paragraph)
By Christian Shepherd
BEIJING, Aug 31 (Reuters) - With beautiful scenery, great food and friendly locals, American tourist Nicholas Burkhead said he’d be happy to return to his latest holiday destination.
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 resident of Virginia, was among the last American tourists to leave North Korea, landing on Thursday at Beijing Capital International Airport.
“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 journalists.
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 a 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 the country as a tourist.
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.
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 said it was not able to give an estimate on the number of U.S. citizens in another country.
North Korea is under growing international pressure over its nuclear tests and repeated ballistic missile launches, including one this week that flew over northern Japan.
Washington’s ban on travel to North Korea followed the death of U.S. college student Otto Warmbier, who was jailed during a tour last year.
Warmbier, who was sentenced to 15 years hard labour for trying to steal a propaganda sign, was returned to the United States in a coma in June and died six days later. The circumstances surrounding his death are not clear, including why he fell into a coma.
Warmbier had been detained leaving the airport in Pyongyang.
“I was expecting a strict security check on exit but there was nothing like that,” Burkhead said.
The State Department’s notice declared U.S. passports invalid for travel to, in or through North Korea. The restriction applies for one year unless extended or revoked by the secretary of state.
North Korean state media has described the ban as a “sordid” attempt to limit human exchanges.
North Korea is currently holding two Korean-American academics and a missionary, as well as three South Korean nationals who were doing missionary work.
Earlier this month, North Korea released a Canadian pastor who had been imprisoned there for more than two years.
Hundreds of Americans are among the roughly 4,000 to 5,000 Western tourists who visit North Korea annually, according to U.S. lawmaker Joe Wilson. ($1 = 0.8414 euros)
Additional reporting by James Pearson in SEOUL; Writing by Tony Munroe; Editing by Lincoln Feast