We’ll file this one under “Things that ended up in North Korea”. When it first opened in 1988 on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, it promised “paradise at sea”; a floating seven-storey mega structure with nearly 200 rooms, nightclubs, bars, restaurants, a helipad, a tennis court and a 50-seat underwater observatory. Within a decade, it would be floated across 14,000km of ocean and parked in an equally, soon-to-be doomed North Korean tourist resort.
This is the late Doug Tarca, swimming with a model of his floating hotel while it was being built in a Singaporean shipyard in the 1980s. Back then, such an ambitious idea was entirely novel. It wasn’t a cruise ship, it was a “floatel”, with an oil rig-style anchoring system and none other than the Four Seasons hotel chain contracted to manage it.
Tarca had seen the potential of tourism on the reef while working as a salvage and survey diver in the 1950s and sharing the beauty of the reef was his passion. Ironically, or more like, outrageously, vast amounts of coral had to be removed at the John Brewer reef in order for his hotel to be floated into the Queensland lagoon. Despite desperate warnings from conservation societies of increased human presence on the reef, the hotel held its opening ceremony in February of 1988.
But just as the champagne bottles were being cracked open, Mother Nature intervened. A tropical cyclone delayed the public opening, damaging multiple amenities including the swimming pool, sinking the underwater observatory, and destroying the guest transfer shuttle boat. Stranger yet, within weeks of guests arriving for their vacations, a shock discovery revealed that more than 100,000 pieces of WWII ammunition filled with anti-tank mines and artillery rounds were resting on the seabed below. Within a year, the hotel had closed.
Next, it was floated off to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where it was christened the Saigon Floating Hotel and became an instant success as a popular nighttime entertainment venue for almost a decade before it ran into more financial difficulties.
In 1997, it was finally bought by North Korea and moved yet again to the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region near the DMZ border, which opened in 1998 as a North-South experiment in tourism. In the shadow of the ‘Diamond Mountain’ a symbol of North and South cooperation, the floatel became known as Hotel Haegumgang.
We couldn’t find any Trip Advisor reviews but one Western tourist visited in 2004 and had this to say:
Visitors to Kumgangsan are housed in the floating Hotel Haegeumgang, which somehow found its way here from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, via Vietnam. You can’t get a Foster’s lager at this towering monstrosity nowadays, but the accommodation is still of acceptable if somewhat faded standard. It doesn’t take long to discover, however, that there are no ATMs in the North, and only Korean credit cards are valid; US dollars or South Korean Won in cash are the only means of payment accepted.
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 U.S. dollars over a decade.
Since then, the once celebrated floating hotel has been 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”.
Today, our doomed floatel once again finds itself in the news however, as the North Korean government plans a revival for the resort. But the news isn’t good for the hotel which has reportedly developed “something of a cult following in Australia” over the years on its bizarre journey across the world. Earlier this month, it failed an inspection from the dear leader himself when Kim Jong Un visited the resort and according to the official KCNA news agency, 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 this week that the infamous North Korean leader 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 own way”.
And so as the world’s first floating hotel looks to be coming to the end of its odyssey, I guess you could say they struggled to keep things a’float.