How Did an Australian Floating Hotel End up in North Korea?

You must have heard the tale of the Australian floating hotel that ended its days in North Korea, here's how and why that happened.
Christopher McFadden

Would you ever stay in a floating hotel? No? What if it was moored right next to the Great Barrier Reef?

Believe it or not, this was once a thing back in the 1980s. Sadly, the venture was plagued with problems and eventually wound its way to North Korea. 

Have we piqued your interest? Then read on. 


Floating what now?

Yes, you read the headline correctly. There was once a floating Australian hotel that did indeed end up in North Korea. 

The hotel in question was called The Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort, and it was originally a very unique Australian holiday destination. It was a seven-story, five-star hotel that was originally planned to be floated over the John Brewer Reef about 70 km off the coast of Townsville, Queensland, Australia. 

It had two hundred rooms, discos, bars, a gym, a sauna, and two top-quality restaurants. Outside the hotel, it also came equipped with an actual floating tennis court as well.

As you can imagine this was an incredibly novel holiday destination and is fondly remembered by local residents and former staff. 

Why was The Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort built?

The hotel was originally the brainchild of a much venerated, and fondly remembered Townsville developer called Doug Tarca. He wanted to put a hotel on the Great Barrier Reef to attract tourists from around the world.

If sited this close to the reef, it should, in theory, allow for immediate and easy access to this incredible natural wonder of the world.

It was originally planned to permanently moor three cruise ships in situ but this was later rejected as being too impracticable. After a chance encounter with a Swedish company that built floating dorms for oil rigs was made, a new plan was hatched to build a floating hotel instead.

Once the designs were finalized, a Singapore-based company began construction of the novel hotel. Because of the sensitive nature of the proposed location, the hotel had to meet very strict environmental restrictions on its design.

Non-toxic paint had to be used on the hull and no discharge was allowed from the hotel into the sea. Sewage and liquid waste had to be treated on-site and any wastewater had to be dumped several miles off the reef. 

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Any solid waste had to be incinerated and other garbage had to be transported to the mainland for processing or disposal. 

The hotel was finally completed in 1987 and cost an eye-watering $40 million. However, a dispute around payment terms meant the finished floating hotel wasn't actually delivered until January 1988.

But this was just the beginning of the hotel's woes. After delivery, the hotel was struck by a cyclone and couldn't be opened for guests for another two months. 

When it did finally open its doors for business in March of 1988, it had missed the lucrative Northern Hemisphere winter tourist market in Australia. This cost the financial backers millions in lost revenue - - not a good start!

Was the floating hotel a success?

You may have already worked this out from the title, but sadly it was not. The hotel was plagued with problems despite its unique qualities as a tourist attraction.

floating hotel great barrier reef
The Great Barrier Reef, Source: Pete Edgeler/Flickr

Apart from its teething problems that we have already mentioned, it was not the easiest hotel to actually get to. It required a 70 km ride on water taxis to actually get there in the first place.

Any rough waters would seriously hamper the transport of tourists to the site. Worse yet, during choppy seas, guests would often feel seasick.

One of the hotel's catamarans used to shuttle supplies and guests from the mainland even caught on fire. Thankfully there were no casualties, but the hotel's PR was seriously damaged.

The enterprise also suffered from poor management, hapless marketing, and eventually, bookings began to dry up. Under such heavy financial pressures, the hotel eventually became too costly to operate. 

In just over a year, the ambitious floating hotel was foreclosed. The hotel itself was eventually sold to another company in Vietnam in 1989.

Once the sale was completed, the hotel was towed to Saigon -- almost 5,000 km away. It was moored on the Saigon River and renamed the Saigon Floating Hotel.

saigon floating hotel
The hotel in Saigon, circa 1989, Source: manhhai/Flickr

At the time Vietnam was going through something of a tourism boom and the unique qualities of the hotel would fill the growing need for luxurious tourist accommodation. As an already packaged, ready-to-go facility, it seemed perfect. 

And the gambit paid off. It became a very popular resort and affectionately came to be known as, ahem, "The Floater."

Sadly, further financial problems once again forced the hotel to close its business in time. 

It seems the hotel was cursed. 

Why was The Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort moved to North Korea?

The floating hotel's unique qualities caught the attention of another potential buyer. This time from North Korea. 

After changing hands once again, she was towed and moored at the Mount Kumgang Tourist Region of North Korea on the border with South Korea. 

It opened for business in 1998 and was aimed at tourists from South Korea. Her name changed again to Sea Kumgang Hotel or Hotel Haegumgang. 

floating hotel north korea
The hotel's current location, Source: Google Maps

Once again, the hotel enjoyed a period of success and became a popular tourist destination. But the hotel could not shake off its past.

In July of 2008, a North Korean soldier accidentally shot dead a South Korean woman. She had unfortunately wandered into the restricted zone and paid the ultimate price. 

Tours were immediately suspended. 

Where is The Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort now?

Following the latest tragic event in the hotel's history, no one has offered to buy it off North Korea. The hotel still remains moored in place and has been closed since 2008.

The hotel did make the news recently when the North Korean Leader made some very unflattering remarks about the facility. Kim Jong-Un was very displeased with slowly rusting hulk and likened it to "makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area."

floating hotel north korea final resting place
The hotel is slowly rusting in North Korea, Source: Google Maps

Following his visit, the Jong-Un ordered that all "backward" and "shabby" facilities, like the floating hotel, be removed from the tourist resort immediately. This casts some very serious doubts about the once-luxurious hotel's future.

Most likely it will either need to be rebuilt, scrapped or sold as soon as possible.

The hotel's unglamorous end is an unfair finale to the story of this ambitious project. Many of the residents back in Townsville are very nostalgic about it to this day.

“It was an impressive sight. I remember so many amazing days living on the hotel, fishing trips, crew parties, diving under the hotel, having pizzas flown out by chopper,” Belinda O'Connor told ABC. O'Connor used to work on the water taxis that ferried guests to and from the hotel.

“It was, and still is, the best job I have ever worked in my life. I got paid to walk, swim and be in the sun. I look back at those times and think: 'Did that really happen? Am I dreaming?” said Luke Stein, another ex-employee of the hotel. 

Today the hotel is remembered at the Townsville Maritime Museum where a scale model of the facility is on display. The exhibition also includes other information and memorabilia from this amazing floating hotel.

What will the future hold for the former The Four Seasons Barrier Reef Resort?

Only time, and tide, will tell.