For the first time on this blog, but certainly not the last, we’re armchair travelling – or rather armchair floating, ahem – around the Pacific Ocean into the uncharted waters of North Korea if we dare. This is to learn the story of the world’s first and only floating hotel, currently moored in a dilapidated North Korean tourist resort, marked for demolition, its future uncertain.
First things first, I know you’re probably wondering: why is it called a floating hotel and not a cruise ship? This is for two reasons we’ll clear up now: it had an oil rig-style anchoring system, and because it was managed by the Four Seasons hotel chain – it was officially called the Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort.
In true Aussie-style humour, this strange looking vessel was nicknamed ‘the Floater’ when it opened in 1998 on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. It’s thought to have 200 rooms, a research lab, a nightclub, two restaurants, a helipad, a shop selling diving gear, a tennis court and an underwater observatory. It spent 10 years on the Pacific Ocean, floating a total of 14,000km to North Korea, gathering something of a cult following on the way, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
It was designed by late Doug Tarca (above) as a luxury stopover for divers. He worked as a salvage and survey diver in the Barrier Reef area during the 1950s and saw tourism as a way to share his passion for the beauty of the reef. Initially, the hotel was secured to the seabed with seven huge anchors, positioned in such a way that they wouldn’t damage the reef. Ironically though, it turned out that vast amounts of coral had to be removed to float the structure into the Queensland lagoon, which sent shockwaves through the conservation arena, not surprisingly.
The novelty of the ‘floatel’ generated a buzz at first when it was marketed as a dream for divers. Even if you didn’t dive, you could get close to the reef from an on-board mini submersible, called The Yellow Submarine.
Meanwhile, Mother Nature had been taking notes. On the day of the launch, a tropical cyclone hit the vicinity of the floatel, delaying the public opening, due to damage to the guest transfer boat, the swimming pool, and the underwater observatory. Stranger yet, within weeks of guests arriving for their holidays, more than 100,000 pieces of WWII ammunition filled with mines and artillery rounds were discovered on the seabed below.
It also soon became clear that the impact of bad weather had been underestimated, and guests were often left stranded, unable to leave the floatel! After just one year, the Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort had become too expensive to run and closed without ever reaching full occupancy.
Next, it was sold to a Japanese company that floated it into Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and named it the Saigon Floating Hotel. It instantly became a popular nighttime entertainment venue for almost a decade before it ran into more financial difficulties.
In 1997, North Korea bought it from the Chinese and it was moved yet again, this time to the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region near the DMZ border, which opened in 1998 as a North-South experiment in tourism, when it was renamed Hotel Haegumgang. The floating hotel’s role soon came to be an official venue for the emotional reunions of families divided by the 1950-53 Korean War, where Southern Korean families could meet their relatives in the North, many of which had not seen their loved ones for over six decades. But in 2008, yet another bad hand was dealt for the ageing vessel when a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean tourist at the resort. Seoul quickly ceased all tours to the region, which had earned North Korea millions of US dollars over a decade.
Since then, it has sat eerily silent and rusting at the edge of the ghostly North Korean resort without maintenance. Despite remaining open to local tourists and some scattered Chinese groups, the South Korean Unification Ministry reported back in 2013 that “there are concerns about its safety, as the building didn’t have any maintenance for the past five years”. Although North Korea plans to revamp the resort, the news isn’t good for the hotel. According to the official KCNA news agency, it failed an inspection from the dear leader himself when Kim Jong Un visited and found the “shabby’ buildings as just a hotchpotch with no national character at all … built like makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area or isolation wards and very backward in terms of architecture”. KCNA reported later that the Un has ordered its demolition, and the removal of “all the unpleasant-looking facilities of the south side and to build new modern service facilities our way”.
Rest in peace the world’s first and only floating hotel.