Everyone has heard the story of the yet to be finished Ryugyong Hotel, but do you know the tale of the Sea Kumgang Hotel?
The Sea Kumgang Hotel (Haekumgang) is located on Korea’s scenic east coast on the shores of Kosung Port, with beautiful Mt Kumgang as its backdrop.
It is seven stories tall with 200 rooms and features restaurants, a duty free shop, massage room, a night club, a casino (reportedly) and great views of the surrounding coastal area and mountain range.
Sounds great, but you can’t stay there. Like the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, this one has a chequered history…
It’s a floating hotel
In fact, it was the world’s first floating hotel – or floatel – and its life started far away in Australia.
As Australia’s ABC recently reported on, the hotel was the brainchild of Townsville developer Doug Tarca whose vision was simple – having been struck by the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef he wanted to put a hotel on it so tourists would have immediate access to the reef. Initially the plan was to permanently moor three cruise ships around the reef, but this was deemed too impractical. Instead, a plan to construct a floating hotel was floated (excuse the pun) and the attraction of building this as a world first was great enough that it was full steam ahead, turning it from an idea into reality.
The hotel was designed and engineered by Sten Stojstrand, and due to the sensitive location it was going to be placed, had to incorporate features that were environmentally sound so the hotel wouldn’t pollute or damage the reef. In 1986 the design of the hotel was finalised, and the plans were handed over to a firm in Singapore for construction, with the total cost coming to $45 million USD.
The floatel was completed in 1987 and it was christened The John Brewer. That summer, it was moved from Singapore to Australia onboard the Mighty Servant 2 (a vessel itself that met an untimely demise). Its final destination was John Brewer Reef, about 70km off the coast of Townsville in far north Queensland where it was moored in place and final preparations were made for opening.
Before the hotel could open to paying guests though, it was hit by Cyclone Charlie – a category 2 tropical cyclone that hit it directly, with everyone onboard at the time having to be evacuated to the mainland. The hotel survived though with only damage to its floating pool.
The hotel officially opened in March 1988 with the name of The John Brewer Floating Hotel to much fanfare and was booked out until 1989. You can watch the below video for news reports and footage of its move to Australia and grand opening.
The hotel’s troubles continued with bookings drying up, this being put down to a combination of poor marketing, poor management and bad publicity after a fire destroyed one of the catamarans used to shuttle guests and supplies between the hotel and mainland.
Remember, it’s a floating hotel.
In 1989, The John Brewer Floating Hotel was sold and moved to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and moored on the Saigon River.
Vietnam had opened its doors to the west in the 1980’s and was now trying to catch up with demand. Saigon didn’t have many accommodation options at the time and the floating hotel was the perfect overnight solution.
As the Saigoneer reports, the floatel was reopened under the name of the Saigon Floating Hotel and found its groove becoming a popular hotel in the city. It’s unofficial, more fondly remembered name was ‘The Floater’, and even its bars – Downunder Disco and Q Bar – also became very popular night time destinations.
By 1997, many hotels had been developed in the city and the Saigon Floating Hotel was no longer profitable and was closed for business.
What to do with a floating hotel?
The hotel remained on the Saigon River for another two years before its next chapter would begin. At one point it was going to head to Palau in Micronesia, but after this deal fell through Hyundai Asan took the opportunity to purchase the hotel and had it shipped to Singapore for a refit.
Hyundai Asan were developing the Mt Kumgang tourist region in North Korea for tourists from the south, and while they were building hotels on land, the floating hotel presented a good, cheap opportunity to add more accommodation without needing to start an expensive ground up construction.
By the year 2000 it had been moved from Singapore to its current location, renamed the Sea Kumgang Hotel and opened once more for paying guests.
In 2008, the Sea Kumgang Hotel was closed when the South Korean government ordered all of its businesses and tourists out of North Korea in response to the shooting of a South Korean tourist in the tourist region.
It still floats
The Sea Kumgang Hotel is still moored in its place, but has been closed for 10 years now. The last time Hyundai Asan employees were able to inspect it they reported that it was empty and unpowered, but still in relatively good condition apart from paint peeling on its exterior.
It’s reasonable to say that it’s unlikely anyone will be staying there anytime soon, though it would make for a very interesting place to stay especially considering its history – it can certainly make claim to being the world’s most travelled hotel. Those who do join us on any of our tours to Mt Kumgang will get the opportunity to see the Sea Kumgang Hotel as we arrive at the Mt Kumgang Tourist Region.
It’s difficult to say if there is another chapter in the story of the Sea Kumgang Hotel, or what that chapter would be. It still belongs to Hyundai Asan who have stated they have no plans to retrieve it or move it. For now the world’s first floating hotel sits empty, unmaintained, in a very beautiful part of Korea, still floating as it was designed to do.
One last thing…
Hyundai Asan maintains their website advertising the Mt Kumgang Tourist Region including hotels and the Sea Kumgang Hotel is of course listed on there if you’d like to take a peek inside this unique hotel, you can view it here. For those wondering, we use the excellent Kumgangsan Hotel when visiting Mt Kumgang. Do keep an eye out for the South Korean touches when you stay there!
Hotels of North Korea is a blog posting dedicated to the fascinating world of accommodations in the DPRK. Check out #hotelsofnorthkorea and #hotelsofdprk on Instagram.