For many years, architects, designers, and developers have played around with the concept of what a hotel can really be. Around the world, you can find hotels with rooms built underwater, constructed among networks of caves, or even made up of old train carriages or recycled planes. And back in the 1980s, one man and his son had the idea of creating the world’s first floating hotel.
Designed to be able to sail the waters of the world, floating from port to port and offering its guests totally unique experiences every time they chose to stay, the floating hotel began its life in Australia but later ended up in North Korea! It’s a fascinating tale, and here’s how it all happened, from start to finish.
The idea for the floating hotel came from a man named Doug Tarca. Doug was born in the town of Melo in Northern Italy, way back in 1929, but his parents immigrated to Australia in 1935, so he spent most of his life in the Land Down Under. Tarca roamed around and tried out a few different jobs over the years, before eventually settling in the town of Townsville.
It was in Townsville that Tarca met the love of his life, got married, and started his own family. He was also a professional diver and really fell in love with the Great Barrier Reef throughout his numerous dives there. And it was that same passion and love of the reef that led to him thinking up the idea for the floating hotel.
Doug spent a lot of time diving among the Great Barrier Reef, widely regarded as one of the most significant wonders of the natural world. He was passionate about preserving the reef to allow future generations to dive there and enjoy its unique beauties and wonders, and he even opened his own little coral museum and shop called Tarca’s Coral Gardens.
Doug also decided to launch a daily tourism service from Townsville to the Great Barrier Reef called ReefLink. This transport system took guests from Townsville out to the reef via catamaran, letting them safely swim and scuba dive before heading back to shore. Then, in the late 1980s, Doug had the idea to create a floating hotel at John Brewer Reef.
Doug wanted to let people enjoy the reef safely and conveniently, so the idea of a floating hotel made a lot of sense. It would allow guests to simply stroll right out of their rooms and head out into the water, ready to dive down and enjoy the miracles of the aquatic world for themselves. He’d dreamt of building some form of accommodation out on the reef for years, according to his son, Peter, and he desperately wanted to bring that dream to life.
To begin with, Tarca planned to moor three cruise ships out on the reef permanently, but this idea was later classed as impractical by the experts, and the idea of a floating hotel was settled upon instead. The company behind the project, Barrier Reef Holdings Ltd, felt that the concept of creating the world’s first floating hotel was an exciting one, sure to generate a lot of hype and interest from travelers around the world.
Throughout the mid-1980s, plans were drawn up for the construction of the hotel, and it was in 1986 that those plans were handed over to a Singapore firm to begin construction. Hopes were high for the floating hotel, both on the part of Doug and the Barrier Reef Holdings Ltd shareholders, but those hopes took a hit straight from the start.
There were several delays throughout the construction process, including a contract dispute with the Singapore construction company that led to even further setbacks. Many hotels suffer little setbacks during the building phase and still survive in the end, but even the slightest of delays can have huge financial impacts in the long-run, and that’s exactly what happened to the floating hotel.
Unfortunately, because of the delays to construction and delivery, the opening of the floating hotel was put way behind schedule. It had to be towed over 5,000 km out from Singapore to the Great Barrier Reef aboard a huge heavy-lift ship, and it wasn’t until March of 1988 that the hotel, under the name of John Brewer Floating Hotel, was finally opened to the public.
This meant that the hotel had missed out on huge potential profits during the Northern Hemisphere winter tourist season, during which many people living in Northern Hemisphere nations like the US and the UK head to warmer places like Australia to flee the cold weather. This led to millions of lost dollars in possible revenue.
The hotel was designed to offer a lot of luxury to its guests. Tens of millions of dollars were spent on its construction, and the hotel was marketed as being a “paradise at sea,” designed to offer beautiful, spacious rooms for its guests and a lot of luxurious amenities too. It was spread out across five floors in total, with almost 200 rooms and various clubs, bars, and eateries.
The John Brewer Floating Hotel also boasted a helipad, a pool, a tennis court, and even a 50-seater underwater observatory where guests could stay dry and admire the underwater world up close and personal. In short, it offered all the standards one might expect of a top tier, four or five-star accommodation location, and it could have been a huge success. Sadly, things didn’t quite turn out that way.
Just before the hotel was due to welcome its first guests, a terrible storm, nicknamed Cyclone Charlie, struck the surrounding area and did some damage to one of the pools, leading to more costs in repairs and more delays to the arrival of the first guests. And the issues continued to pile up from there, all damaging the hotel’s chances of success.
During 1988, the floating hotel’s first year, the grand World Expo event was being held in Brisbane, Australia, which drove tourism away from the hotel, reducing the number of bookings and leading to even more losses. Not only that, but there was a lot more bad weather in the area too, and since the hotel relied on sunshine and calm conditions to attract guests, booking numbers were quite low.
Even though the guest numbers were pretty low, and the owners of the hotel were suffering from one disaster after another, the staff at the time seemed to be having a lot of fun. One of the workers, Belinda O’Connor, who was responsible for ferrying guests back and forth to the hotel on a water taxi, says that the hotel itself was one of the most impressive sights she’d ever seen.
She added that the staff spent a lot of fun times living at the hotel, setting off on fishing and diving trips in the surrounding waters, and having pizza parties. Luke Stein, another worker of the floating hotel, called it the “best job I have ever worked in my life,” joking that he was basically paid just for spending time in the sunshine and getting to swim around in beautiful blue waters.
Unfortunately, even though the staff were living it up, the hotel was really struggling in those early weeks and months. Maybe the owners felt that once the cyclone and construction delays were over, their problems were in the past, but the issues just kept stacking up on top of each other for the floating hotel. It almost felt like the whole project was cursed.
For example, while ferrying one of the first boat loads of guests out to the hotel, a worker named Larissa Kilcullen remembers that the rough conditions and choppy waters led to many of the guests getting seasick and actually needing to go back to dry land. Ms. Kilcullen herself was also seasick on most of the journeys.
One of the main driving forces behind Doug Tarca’s vision for the floating hotel was his passion for conservation. He loved the Great Barrier Reef and wanted to protect and preserve it for the future, allowing as many people as possible to enjoy it for generations to come. He was a man who seemed to care a great deal about the natural world.
Unfortunately, the construction of the John Brewer Floating Hotel actually wasn’t very beneficial to nature at all! Large sections of coral had to be removed just to make way for the hotel, and conservationists were absolutely outraged. We’re not sure what Doug himself had to say about all this, as few detailed records remain from those days, but his passionate, preservation-oriented side couldn’t have been too happy with how things turned out.
It seemed like the floating hotel was doomed right from the start. Even when guests started to arrive, problems persisted. There was even a fire aboard one of the water taxis later on, which led to even more issues for the hotel owners and board members to figure out. In the end, the booking numbers started to go down.
Local journalists argued that a lack of marketing and terrible management, along with a fair share of bad luck, had led to the floating hotel going from a great idea to a total disaster. Robert De Jong, a Townsville historian and worker of the Townsville Maritime Museum, said that the project was simply “ahead of its time” while admitting that it had quickly become “too costly to operate.”
In the end, it became clear to see that the John Brewer Floating Hotel just wasn’t going to work out in the long run. The booking numbers were down, there was a declining level of interest in the hotel as a concept, and too many guests had suffered bad experiences there. In short, the hotel’s reputation was in tatters, and it seemed like there was no real way to restore it without spending tons more money that the owners simply couldn’t afford.
This is where the concept of the floating hotel actually worked in the owners’ favor. When most hotels start to fail, they have to close the doors and either get torn down or simply left abandoned until someone eventually buys them out and tries to restart the business. But in the case of a floating hotel, once the first idea failed, it was possible to simply move the hotel somewhere new, selling it to owners and letting them start again, and that’s exactly what happened.
Despite all the troubles that had come with the opening of the floating hotel, there was a lot of interest from around the world when it was announced that the structure was for sale. Malcolm Clyde, then manager director of Great Barrier Reef Holdings, stated that the hotel’s “most difficult challenges” were in the past.
Clyde then began negotiations with several companies around the world, including in the US and Japan, for the potential development of new floating hotels, as well as the sale of the existing one. Clyde argued that the idea of installing floating hotels in many locations actually made more sense than bulldozing a bunch of land and traditionally constructing a hotel. In the end, a buyer in Vietnam was found.
Once the sale of the floating hotel had gone through, it was time for the next step in its incredible story to begin. It had to be transported a very long distance once more, leaving the waters off the coast of Australia and heading up to Vietnam, where it was docked at Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon, the biggest city in Vietnam.
With a population closing in on 9 million in the city itself and over 21 million people in the surrounding metropolitan area, Ho Chi Minh City is a thriving urban center and one of the most-visited sites in Vietnam too, so it was hoped that the hotel could be a smashing success with both the locals and the many visitors in the area.
The hotel, which had been known as both the John Brewer Floating Hotel and the Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort during its brief operations in Australia, was now given a new name upon its arrival in Vietnam. It was called the Saigon Floating Hotel and moored in the Saigon River, not far from the Tran Hung Dao Statue.
The hotel had traveled another 5,000 km from Australia to its new home, and it was hoped that this fresh start would be just what it needed to finally live up to its early potential. It was clear to see that the floating hotel could be a big hit, but it needed proper marketing, strong management, and the right approach. So, was Vietnam the right fit?
Well, given that the Saigon Floating Hotel managed to remain in Ho Chi Minh City for quite a long time, from 1989 to 1997, it’s clear to see that it had much more success there than it did in Australia. Locals began calling it “The Floater,” and it proved popular with Vietnamese people, due to the fact that it had two nightclubs.
The nightclubs onboard the floating hotel swiftly developed a reputation for being some of the hottest spots in the area. Locals would head out to The Floater after work in the evenings or at the end of the week when they wanted to have some fun with their friends and colleagues, and other visitors to the city were drawn to the hotel, just to see what it looked like and spend a few nights onboard.
Sadly, even the most successful of establishments can’t always maintain those same levels of success as time goes by. Ho Chi Minh City is a rapidly-growing and ever-evolving city where new clubs, bars, restaurants, and hotels are being opened up all the time, and as the years went on, it became clear to see that the Saigon Floating Hotel just couldn’t keep up with the competition.
With more nightlife hotspots and accommodation options available to Ho Chi Minh City visitors and locals, the appeal of The Floater began to wane, and by the late 1990s, it was losing too much money to be considered a viable business any longer. Thus, for the second time in its existence, the hotel was put up for sale and prepared to ship off somewhere new.
The Saigon Floating Hotel had a troubled end to its stay in Vietnam, but it had still been a relative success for many years, so there was a lot of interest in the floating structure once it was put up for sale for the second time. Observers following the story might have expected the hotel to end up around the globe in America, perhaps in Japan, or maybe in some other Asian touristic location.
Instead, it was actually purchased by a South Korean company. In 1998, South Korean buyers purchased the structure, and it began another long journey from Vietnam to its new home, just over the border in North Korea. It was positioned in the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region and given yet another new name: The Hotel Haegumgang.
The Mount Kumgang Tourist Region is a special region in North Korea that actually sits on the border separating North Korea from South Korea. Even though many tensions have existed between the two nations over the years, at the time when the hotel arrived in 1998, efforts were being made by both nations to try and push for better international relations.
So, in that very same year, Mount Kumgang itself was opened up to South Korean tourists, and the region started to be developed to try and improve Korean relations. Various South Korean companies were involved in the development of the area, setting up new hotels and facilities to create a beautiful resort space, and the new owners of the hotel decided that it would be a great addition to the resort.
The Mount Kumgang Tourist Region is filled with stunning mountains, among the most popular and scenic in all of Korea, offering plenty of nature trails and hiking opportunities for visitors. For many years, it was a hugely popular place with South Korean visitors and other foreign tourists, and with so much tourism in the area, it seemed that the floating hotel could be a big success.
Indeed, for about ten years, running from 1998 to 2008, the hotel seemed to do reasonably well. It wasn’t a smashing success according to the reports, as there were several other luxury hotels in the area. However, it still had bookings and served as a popular touristic location for visitors. Between 1998 and 2008, over a million South Koreans visited the resort.
Perhaps the Hotel Haegeumgang could have carried on being a reasonably popular accommodation located in the thriving Mount Kumgang Tourist Region for many more years, but in 2008, a terrible and dramatic incident occurred that changed the face of the region forever, as well as having a huge effect on the hotel’s future.
It was in July of 2008 that a 53-year-old South Korean female tourist named Park Wang-JA was visiting the area and accidentally entered a military zone, according to reports from the North Korean government. A soldier in the zone shot Park Wang-JA twice and killed her. Naturally, the killing of a tourist came as a great shock to the authorities and people of South Korea, and more drama ensued.
The South Korean response to this tragedy was swift, with the government immediately announcing a travel ban and blocking any of its citizens from heading to Mount Kumgang. North Korea retaliated angrily, expelling South Korean workers from the resort and seizing properties owned by South Korea too.
Several arguments took place between the two nations, with South Korea demanding some kind of inquiry into the killing of their citizens and North Korea refusing to cooperate, claiming that the tourist had been warned by the soldier that she was in a military zone and failed to comply with instructions before being killed. South Korean reports, meanwhile, stated that Park Jang-wa was simply strolling through the area and posed no threat.
Without the huge influx of tourists from South Korea, the popularity and success of the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region began to decline. The area was still reasonably popular with North Koreans, and as the years went by, North Korea began to run various tours to the area and encouraged Chinese guests to explore it as well, but this wasn’t enough to reach the former levels of success.
The notable absence of South Korean visitors was greatly felt, and travel books have stated that most of the facilities in the area have been forced to close down over the years due to a lack of business. Some visitors have also shared photos online, showing the floating hotel and other locations looking almost abandoned.
In recent years, tensions between North Korea and South Korea have once more started to subside a little, and efforts have been made on both sides of the border to try and bring the people back together. So, in 2018, it was announced by the President of South Korea, Moon Jae-in, and the Supreme Leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, that the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region would be reopened to South Korean visitors once more.
This was a big announcement, not only for the pursuit of a harmonious international relationship between North Korea and South Korea but also for the future of the Hotel Haegumgang. On paper, if more tourists are allowed back into the tourist region, the hotel has a renewed chance of success and could continue being a popular spot for many more years. However, the reality of the situation could turn out to be very different.
In October of 2019, it was reported that Kim Jong-un himself paid a visit to the floating hotel, presumably to scan the area as it reopens and set out plans for future development. Unfortunately for the hotel, Kim Jong-un was said to be very unhappy with what he saw.
He stated that the facilities were “very backward in terms of architecture but look so shabby as they are not properly cared for.” The leader also added that the buildings felt like “a hotchpotch with no national character at all.” Kim Jong-un seemed to feel that the hotel had a shabby and unprofessional look that just didn’t fit in with the look and feel of the area, or the principles of North Korea in general.
The Supreme Leader was said to be so unhappy with the facilities at the floating hotel that he reportedly said that the whole thing should be torn down and replaced with something more modern and fitting of the area. It seems that North Korea is planning a total redevelopment of the Mount Kumgang area, and the hotel isn’t likely to survive this process.
After three decades of life and several owners in three separate locations, the floating hotel has been through a whole lot and made it out on the other side. It has survived cyclones, storms, huge journeys, and terrible management decisions, but this truly might be the end of the road. Usually, when Kim Jong-un makes a decision, he gets what he wants, but there might still be a little bit of hope left in store for the Hotel Haegumgang.
Even though North Korea’s Supreme Leader seems intent on his plans to demolish the floating hotel and rebuild something more in line with North Korea’s image and ideas, South Korea seems to have a different view of the matter, and this could be enough to potentially save the floating hotel and even breathe new life into this historic structure.
Kim Eun-Han, a deputy spokesman for the Unification Ministry, stated that South Korea would prefer to repair, renovate, and remodel some of the structures in the resort area, possibly including the floating hotel. The South Korean government and various companies have invested a lot of money in the area, estimated at over USD 350 million, so it’s only natural that they’d prefer to repair and maintain their investments, rather than agreeing with their destruction.
After traveling around 14,000 km in total since it was first constructed in Singapore back in the late 1980s, the floating hotel now faces an uncertain future. The plans for redevelopment and renovation of the hotel in North Korea have been delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world. Still, it’s clear that some form of those plans will eventually be put into action.
When that happens, nobody really knows what will become of the hotel. If the plans go ahead as suggested, the original structure will be destroyed, and a new one will be built, effectively marking the end of this fascinating tale. If the hotel is left intact in any way, it may stick around in North Korea with a totally new look and vibe, or it might end up being sold off all over again and shipped somewhere new.
It’s incredible to think that the idea for the floating hotel all started, so many years ago, in the mind of one young man who simply loved the Great Barrier Reef and wanted to share that passion with as many people as possible. Doug Tarca had a vision, but it probably didn’t quite turn out the way he ever expected!
Doug passed away in the early 90s, so he never got to see how the hotel ended up becoming such a big hit in Vietnam and then went on to find a new home in North Korea, but he left behind quite a story for us all. Still, his visionary attitude and innovative nature gave the world something special, and even though the hotel didn’t go to plan, it still proved to be an extraordinary feat of engineering and architecture, inspiring other hotel designers across the globe.