It was once a luxurious five-star resort floating directly above Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. It now sits dilapidated in a North Korean port, a 20-minute drive from the Demilitarized Zone, the restricted zone separating the two Koreas.
That’s the final stop for the world’s first floating hotel on a strange 10,000-mile journey that began with glamorous helicopter rides and fine dining over 30 years ago but ended in tragedy.
This rusted vessel with a colorful past is now slated for demolition and faces an uncertain future.
Doug Tarca, an Italian-born professional diver and entrepreneur living in Townsville on Queensland’s northeastern coast, Australia, created the floating hotel. Tarca considered permanently mooring old cruise ships to the reef, but realized it would be less expensive and more environmentally friendly to design and build a custom floating hotel instead. The Bethlehem shipyard in Singapore, a subsidiary of a now-defunct large US steel company, began construction in 1986.
The hotel was estimated to cost $45 million – more than $100 million in today’s money – and was transported by heavy-lift ship to the John Brewer Reef, which was chosen as the hotel’s location within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
The hotel was secured to the ocean floor with seven massive anchors that were strategically placed so that they did not damage the reef. No sewage was pumped overboard, water was recirculated, and any trash was taken to a site on the mainland, reducing the structure’s environmental impact.
The novelty of it all created quite a stir at first, and the hotel was a diver’s dream. Thanks to a special submersible called The Yellow Submarine, even non-divers could enjoy breathtaking views of the reef.
Interestingly, hotel staff lived on the top floor, which is the least desirable location in a floating hotel because it swings the most. Staffers used an empty whisky bottle hanging from the ceiling to gauge the roughness of the sea, according to de Jong: when it began to sway out of control, they knew a lot of guests would be seasick.
Another issue was that a cyclone hit the structure just one week before it was scheduled to open, damaging a freshwater pool that was part of the complex beyond repair. A World War II ammunition dump was discovered two miles from the hotel, scaring away some guests. And there wasn’t much else to do besides dive or snorkel. The floating hotel set out on its second journey, this time 3,400 miles north. It was renamed the Saigon Hotel, but it was more colloquially known as “The Floater” and remained moored in the Saigon River for nearly a decade.
The Floater, on the other hand, ran out of steam financially and closed down in 1998. Instead of being dismantled, it was purchased by North Korea in order to attract tourists to Mount Kumgang, a scenic area near the border with South Korea.
After another 2,800-mile journey, the floating hotel, now known as Hotel Haegumgang, was ready for its third adventure. It opened in October 2000 and was managed by Hyundai Asan, a South Korean company that also operated other facilities in the area and provided packages for South Korean tourists.
According to Hyundai Asan spokesman Park Sung-uk, the Mount Kumgang region has attracted over 2 million tourists over the years.
A North Korean soldier shot and killed a 53-year-old South Korean woman who had wandered outside the Mount Kumgang tourist area and into a military zone in 2008. As a result, Hyundai Asan suspended all tours, and Hotel Haegumgang, along with everything else, closed down.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visited the Mount Kumgang tourist area in 2019 and criticized many of the facilities, including Hotel Haegumgang, for being run-down; he ordered the demolition of many of them as part of a plan to redesign the area in a more North Korean style. Then the pandemic struck, and all plans were put on hold. It’s unclear whether or not the plan to demolish everything will be implemented anytime soon, if at all.
Meanwhile, the floating hotel continues to exist, its legacy unbroken. Because the concept of floating hotels has yet to catch on, it will most likely remain unique.