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The bizarre story of Australia’s floating hotel — in North Korea

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Australia was once home to the world's first floating hotel, and over the past 30 years it's been on a wild ride, from Singapore to the Great Barrier Reef — and then to North Korea.

From early 1988, you could book a room in this five-star hotel as it gently drifted over John Brewer Reef, about 70km off the coast of Townsville.

The floating hotel was equipped with its very own tennis court, shown in this catalogue clipping.

Two women playing tennis on board the floating hotel.

The floating hotel was equipped with its very own tennis court, shown in this catalogue clipping.

Supplied: Barrier Reef Holdings

The seven-storey structure had nearly 200 rooms, and was decked out with a glowing neon nightclub, bars and restaurants, a helipad and a tennis court.

It had a very '80s feel.

Robert De Jong from the Townsville Maritime Museum is currently working on an exhibition about the floating hotel.

"It was a world-first attempt to have people staying on the reef in a floating — literally, a floating — hotel," he said.

The hotel was the brainchild of Townsville developer Doug Tarca.

He died in the mid-90s, but his son Peter also helped with the project.

"It was pretty amazing to see the hotel floating on the reef, with that beautiful blue water background right behind it," Peter Tarca said.

"From a distance it just kind of looked like another ship.

"But as you got closer and closer, clearly you'd see it was a different kind of structure.

"It really put Townsville on the map, because it was something that was very unique in this area, and unique around the world."

Original plan

Peter Tarca's father Doug Tarca had long dreamt of building permanent accommodation on the reef.

The floating hotel, with the reef in he foreground.

Peter Tarca says his father wanted to share the reef with the world.

The floating hotel, with the reef in he foreground.

Peter Tarca says his father wanted to share the reef with the world.

Supplied: Barrier Reef Holdings

"He was struck by the beauty of the reef, the wonder of it," Peter Tarca said.

"Being under the water, or just floating over the top snorkelling — it was just really something he wanted to share with people," he said.

Robert De Jong said the original plan was to construct a safe anchorage on the reef by permanently mooring three separate cruise ships there, but this was deemed to be impractical.

So, the company behind the project, Barrier Reef Holdings Limited, settled on a floating hotel instead.

The novelty of building the world's first floating hotel was a big drawcard.

So too was the idea of permanent access to the reef, with stable facilities that wouldn't need to be docked for repairs.

"In 1986, after all the designs were completed and the plans were there, it was given out to a Singapore-based firm for construction," Mr De Jong said.

News clippings and archive stories indicate there were some delays to construction, and a cost blowout.

Details are a little murky, but the price tag appears to have been in excess of $40 million.

In the summer of 1987–88, the Barrier Reef Floating Resort was towed more than 5,000 kilometres from Singapore, to the Great Barrier Reef.

"It was brought to the reef on a huge heavy-lift ship," Mr De Jong said.

Finally, in March 1988, the hotel opened to guests.

Belinda O'Connor worked on a water taxi that ferried guests out to the hotel, and she still remembers the first time she saw it.

Three women in 1980s fashions on the deck of the floating hotel.

Many a party was had onboard, by customers and crew members alike.

Three women in 1980s fashions on the deck of the floating hotel.

Many a party was had onboard, by customers and crew members alike.

Supplied: Great Barrier Reef Holdings

"It was an impressive sight," she said.

"I remember so many amazing days living on the hotel, fishing trips, crew parties, diving under the hotel, having pizzas flown out by chopper."

Luke Stein also worked at 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," he said.

"I look back to those times and think: 'Did that really happen? Am I dreaming?'"

But like all major experimental ventures, it wasn't without teething problems.

Rough waters

Before the floating hotel opened, it was struck by a cyclone.

Larissa Kilcullen started working as a waitress on the floating hotel when she was 19 years old.

News clipping about Floating Hotel

A news clipping about the floating hotel, from the Age Magazine, 1988

News clipping about Floating Hotel

A news clipping about the floating hotel, from the Age Magazine, 1988

Supplied: Townsville Maritime Museum

"Getting the hotel ready for the cyclone was not a good experience," she said.

"We just had a boat load of guests arrive seasick because of the rough sea and we had to put them and us back on it to Townsville."

"The sea was so rough that to get from one side of the boat to the other you had to go on all fours," she said.

Surprisingly, the main structure was largely unaffected — only the pool was significantly damaged.

"I was seasick almost every trip out and back but was fine once in the hotel," Mrs Kilcullen said.

Peter Tarca said rough weather often disrupted connections to the mainland.

"Those couple of years from that arrival were notably gnarly weather," he said.

"Even though it was a large structure — 12,000 tonnes — [with] the wind and the waves across the reef, you could feel some movement."

Soon, guest numbers began to drop.

Some journalists at the time suggested poor marketing, poor management, and a fire aboard one of the water taxis also contributed to financial problems for the floating venture.

"I just think it was probably a bit ahead of its time, and it just became too costly to operate," Mr De Jong said.

'The Floater': to North Korea, via Vietnam

One benefit of having a floating hotel is, if it runs into problems, you can simply float it somewhere else.

So when the cash dried up, that's exactly what the owners did.

"Just to cover the losses, the company sold the hotel to another company based in Ho Chi Minh city, in Vietnam," Mr De Jong said.

And so, a little over a year after it opened, the hotel embarked on another journey of more than 5,000km.

A flashy lounge in floating hotel with gold-coloured surfaces and bright lights.

Inside, the hotel's interior was flashy — and very on-trend for the time.

A flashy lounge in floating hotel with gold-coloured surfaces and bright lights.

Inside, the hotel's interior was flashy — and very on-trend for the time.

Supplied: Barrier Reef Holdings

Mr De Jong said the floating hotel was seen as an ideal opportunity to quickly establish luxury accommodation, as Vietnam entered a post-war tourism boom.

The hotel was reportedly renamed as the Saigon Floating Hotel, and moored in the Saigon River, just next to the Tran Hung Dao Statue, from 1989-1997.

Known fondly to locals as "The Floater", it became a popular accommodation destination, and was home to two night clubs.

But that wasn't the end of its journey.

"The Floater" again ran into financial problems, and was sold to a new buyer.

"Apparently it was transferred to North Korea, when there was a time in the history of the two Koreas of appeasement and thawing of relations," Mr De Jong said.

"It was thought that the hotel in North Korea could be suitable for attracting tourists … I don't think that happened really.

"However, the hotel still sits in North Korea, in Kumgang port. Using satellite imaging you can vaguely see it."

Floating hotel satellite image

The Barrier Reef Resort is now called Hotel Haegumgang and it sits in the port of a North Korean tourist town at the base of Mount Kumgang.

Floating hotel satellite image

The Barrier Reef Resort is now called Hotel Haegumgang and it sits in the port of a North Korean tourist town at the base of Mount Kumgang.

Google Maps

Photographer Eric Lafforgue visited the Mount Kumgang tourist town in 2009 and snapped a photo of the hotel from a distance.

"I think nobody has been there for years — it is closed and looks rusty from far away," he said.

Google Maps has several user-submitted photographs of the hotel in Mount Kumgang port — and for trivia buffs, the hotel has an average user rating of 2.8 stars.

The floating hotel docked in North Korea.

An image of Hotel Haegumgang in North Korea.

The floating hotel docked in North Korea.

An image of Hotel Haegumgang in North Korea.

Google Maps: Youngsang Joo

Impact on Townsville

Over the past 30 years, the floating hotel has travelled at least 14,000km.

Despite its brief stay in Queensland, many Townsville residents still have memories of the resort, according to Mr De Jong.

"The people of Townsville, many of them still remember it," he said.

"It would have had an impact, but even Doug Tarca says he was a bit ahead of his time.

"I've met a few people who've actually either worked on the hotel or stayed on the hotel — what they remember is they got seasick from time to time."

Peter Tarca says the hotel was a testament to having a vision — and to following a passion.

"It would have been interesting and exciting for someone else to step up and do something similar," he said.

"I think that floating accommodation in line with the floating hotel, is something that could be taken onboard in different areas around the planet."

The Science Show on RN will be looking into the many facets of floating cities on Saturday at 12pm. You can also listen online or via the ABC Listen App.

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