The story of the Australian floating hotel turned North Korean ghost ship

This former five-star resort was abandoned somewhere north of the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Off the coast of a small tourist and port town on the east coast of North Korea, just 18 kilometers from the demilitarized zone, lies a huge abandoned ship once known as the Barrier Reef Floating Resort.

In the late 1980s, the seven-story structure – which included 200 rooms, a nightclub, a helicopter landing pad and a tennis court – was billed as the world’s first floating hotel, offering guests the chance to spend several luxurious nights on the waters of the Great Barrier Reef, 70 kilometers off Townsville, Australia.

The 12,000-ton wreck was then towed from Australia to North Korea, where it has been resting for the past decade. Kim Jong Un recently called the structure “shabby” and ordered its removal. But many have fond memories of the floating hotel: first as a five-star party venue, then as an ill-fated tourist attraction, and finally as an unlikely symbol of diplomatic relations between North and South Korea.

Amidst global nuclear tension and pandemic disease, the future of the floating hotel has perhaps never been more uncertain.

“I had so many incredible days at this hotel,” Belinda O’Connor, who worked as a water cab driver during the Barrier Reef Floating Resort’s Australian tenure, told ABC in 2018. The fishing trips, the crew parties, the diving under the hotel, the pizzas sent by helicopter… It was an impressive sight.”

“It was pretty amazing to see the hotel floating on the reef, with this beautiful blue water in the background,” agrees Peter Tarca, whose father designed the structure. From a distance, it looked like any other boat. But as you got closer, you could clearly see it was a different type of structure.”

The Barrier Reef Floating Resort opened in 1988, but experienced several years of very bad weather and frequent hurricanes. Visitor numbers gradually dropped, and in late 1989, the floating hotel was towed 5,500 kilometers northwest to the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Renamed the Saigon Floating Hotel, this unique establishment took advantage of Vietnam’s post-war tourism boom and became a popular place to stay until it again ran into financial difficulties and was sold to a new buyer.

At the turn of the millennium, during a period of relative peace and reconciliation between North and South Korea, the floating hotel was moved to its current resting place, the port of Mount Kumgang, about 200 kilometers east of Pyongyang.

“Apparently it was moved to North Korea at a time of appeasement and thawing of relations in the history of the two Koreas,” Robert De Jong of the Townsville Maritime Museum told ABC. We thought the hotel in North Korea could help attract tourists.”

The floating hotel became an iconic part of the Mount Kumgang resort, which was developed in the 1990s by a South Korean company, Hyundai Asan, that organized tours in the area. Renamed Hotel Haegumgang, the ship was frequently used to accommodate tourists from south of the border until 2008, when a North Korean guard shot and killed a South Korean tourist who had allegedly wandered into a military zone.

Visits to Mount Kumgang were suspended, and since then relations between the two countries have only soured.

Kim Ha-young, a spokesperson for Hyundai Asan, explains that while there were once discussions between the North and South about the future of tourism on Mount Kumgang, they stopped completely at the time of the Covid-19 outbreak and that “nothing has happened between the two sides since then.

Kim added that after the 2008 incident, the floating hotel was mainly used by Chinese tourists. But during his last visit to Mount Kumgang in early 2019, the vessel appeared to have been completely closed to the public.

“When we visited North Korea early last year, we inspected the hotel with our naked eyes. At that time, it was no longer in use. It had aged and was no longer maintained. It’s hard to say what it’s like today because of the pandemic.”
So the future of the Great Barrier Reef floating hotel remains shrouded in uncertainty. South Koreans are not allowed to legally stay in contact with North Koreans, and it is even difficult for the South Korean government to communicate with the North.

It has also been more than a year since Kim Jong Un ordered the destruction of the ship, according to state media. I ask Kim Ha-young if it is possible that the iconic floating hotel has been sunk or destroyed since his last visit. No,” he replies simply. As far as we know, the building has not moved.”