Hotel Haegumgang: The sad and surprising story of the North Korean floating hotel


Jacopo Prisco, CNN

It was once an exclusive five-star resort floating directly above Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. For years, it sat in a dilapidated state at a North Korean port, a 20-minute drive from the Demilitarized Zone, the restricted area that separates the two Koreas.

For the world’s first floating hotel, it’s the latest leg of a bizarre 10,000-mile journey that began more than 30 years ago with glamorous helicopter rides and fine dining, but ended in a tragedy.

Although there was hope that the floating hotel, a centerpiece of the Mount Kumgang resort, might have another life, that turned out not to be the case.

Intelligence reports in South Korea indicate that the Haegumgang floating hotel was among the sites destroyed by the North Korean government in 2022, along with Onjonggak Rest House, where televised meetings between estranged parents on both sides of the DMZ had previously taken place. venue.

Learn about the importance of Mount Kumgang and why the floating hotel may disappear forever.

It’s the sad ending to a long and colorful story, which continues below.

A night at the reef

The floating hotel was designed by Doug Tarca, an Italian-born professional diver and entrepreneur living in Townsville, on the northeast coast of Queensland, Australia.

“He had a lot of love and appreciation for the Great Barrier Reef,” says Robert de Jong, curator at the Townsville Maritime Museum. In 1983, Tarca started a company, Reef Link, to transport catamaran trippers from Townsville to a reef formation off the coast.

“But then he said, ‘Wait. What about letting people stay on the reef overnight? »

Initially, Tarca thought about mooring old cruise ships permanently at the reef, but realized it would be cheaper and more environmentally friendly to design and build a custom floating hotel instead. Construction began in 1986 at the Bethlehem Shipyard in Singapore, a subsidiary of a now defunct major US steel company.

The hotel cost around $45 million – more than $100 million in today’s money – and was transported by heavy lift ship to John Brewer Reef, its chosen location in the marine park of The great coral barrier.

“It’s a horseshoe-shaped reef, with calm waters in the middle, so ideal for a floating hotel,” says de Jong.

The hotel was anchored to the ocean floor with seven huge anchors, positioned so as not to damage the reef. No waste water was pumped overboard, water was recirculated and all waste was taken to a site on the mainland, somewhat limiting the environmental impact of the structure.

Named the Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort, it officially opened on March 9, 1988.

“It was a five-star hotel and it wasn’t cheap,” says de Jong. “It had 176 rooms and could accommodate 350 guests. There was a nightclub, two restaurants, a research lab, a library, and a shop where you could buy scuba gear. There was even a tennis court, although I think most of the tennis balls probably ended up in the Pacific.

A bottle of whiskey

Getting to the hotel required either a two-hour ride on a speedy catamaran or a much faster helicopter ride — also more expensive, at $350 adjusted for inflation per round trip.

The novelty of it all caused a stir at first and the hotel was a diver’s dream. Even non-divers could enjoy incredible views of the reef, thanks to a special submersible called The Yellow Submarine.

However, it soon became apparent that the impact of bad weather on customers had been underestimated.

“If the weather was rough and you had to go back to town to catch a plane, the helicopter couldn’t fly and the catamaran couldn’t sail, which caused a lot of inconvenience,” de Jong says.

Interestingly, the hotel staff lived on the top floor, which in a floating hotel is the least desirable location as it sways the most. According to de Jong, staff members used an empty whiskey bottle hanging from the ceiling to measure the roughness of the sea: when it began to sway out of control, they knew many of the guests would get seasick.

“That’s probably one of the reasons why the hotel was never really a commercial success,” he says.

There were other issues: A cyclone hit the structure just a week before it opened, irreparably damaging a freshwater swimming pool that was part of the complex. A World War II munitions depot has been discovered two miles from the hotel, scaring some guests. And there wasn’t really much to do except scuba dive or snorkel.

After only a year, the Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort had become too expensive to operate and closed without ever reaching full occupancy.

“He disappeared very quietly,” de Jong explains, “and he was sold to a company in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, which was trying to attract tourists.”

An unlikely destination

In 1989, the floating hotel embarked on its second voyage, this time 3,400 miles north. Renamed Saigon Hotel – but more colloquially known as “The Floater” – it remained moored in the Saigon River for almost a decade.

“It really became a hit, and I think the reason for that was that it wasn’t in the middle of nowhere but on a seafront. It was floating, but it was connected to the mainland,” de Jong explains.

In 1998, however, The Floater ran out financially and closed. But instead of being dismantled, it found an unlikely new lease of life: it was bought by North Korea to lure tourists to Mount Kumgang, a scenic area near the border with South Korea.

“At that time, the two Koreas were trying to build bridges, they were talking to each other. But many hotels in North Korea weren’t really tourist-friendly,” de Jong says.

After another 2,800 mile journey, the floating hotel was ready for its third adventure, with the new name Hotel Haegumgang. It opened in October 2000 and was run by a South Korean company, Hyundai Asan, which also operated other facilities in the area and offered packages to South Korean tourists.

Over the years, the Mount Kumgang area has attracted more than 2 million tourists, according to Hyundai Asan spokesman Park Sung-uk.

“In addition, Mount Kumgang Tour has enhanced inter-Korean reconciliation and served as a focal point for inter-Korean exchanges, as a reuniting center for separated families to heal the sorrows of national division,” he said.

A tragedy

In 2008, a North Korean soldier shot and killed a 53-year-old South Korean woman who had wandered beyond the boundaries of the Mount Kumgang tourist area and into a military zone. As a result, Hyundai Asan has suspended all tours and Haegumgang Hotel has closed along with everything else.

It’s unclear if the hotel has operated since then, but certainly not for South Korean tourists.

“The information is sketchy, but I think the hotel only worked for members of North Korea’s ruling party,” de Jong said. On Google Maps, it can still be seen moored to a pier in the Mount Kumgang area, rusting.

In 2019, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un visited the Mount Kumgang tourist area and criticized many facilities, including the Haegumgang Hotel, for being shabby; he ordered the demolition of many of them as part of a plan to redesign the area in a style more suited to North Korean culture.

In the meantime, the legacy of the floating hotel is still intact. It will likely remain one of a kind, as the idea of ​​floating hotels hasn’t really caught on.

Or – in a sense – he did.

“The ocean is full of floating hotels,” says de Jong. “They’re just called cruise ships.”

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