Travel | November 6, 2020 1:17 pm

How Did a Floating Australian “Party Resort” End Up in North Korea?

A nightclub hotel that once sat in the middle of the Great Barrier Reef is now just 11 miles from the DMZ

barrier reef floating resort
The Barrier Reef Floating Resort in the 1980s, before it ended up in North Korea as the Hotel Haegumgang.
Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket via Getty Images

Hey Hollywood execs, here’s an idea: How about a Great Barrier Reef party hotel that somehow travels 4,000 miles north to a port in North Korea? The only thing crazier than that premise is the fact that it’s all true.

In a recent piece, Vice catalogued the history of the Barrier Reef Floating Resort, which opened on John Brewer Reef in the middle of the Coral Sea in 1988. The seven-story, 200-room hotel featured a raucous nightclub, tennis courts and a helipad, which was used to fly in guests as well as frequent deliveries of booze and pizza. As the world’s first floating hotel, it cost $40 million to build. Workers recall snorkeling underneath the structure, and long days surrounded by sparkling blue water. One recalls: “It was, and still is, the best job I have ever worked in my life.”

It wasn’t long for Australia, though. Due to tempestuous weather — including cyclones — the hotel was eventually towed to Vietnam, where it flourished in the country’s post-war boom. (Another nightclub was added.) It was renamed the Saigon Floating Hotel and remained along the Saigon River until 1997, at which point financial woes forced a sale. The unlikely buyer? North Korea.

North Korean officials brought the hotel to its Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, a beautiful area of the country along the DMZ. South Koreans were actually allowed to visit the region at the time, thanks to the inter-Korean thaw that followed South Korea’s Nobel Prize-winning “Sunshine Policy” (which hinged on pursuing reconciliation). North Korea renamed the structure once again — Hotel Haegumgang — and for years, there actually were tourists. But that ended in 2008, when a North Korean soldier shot and killed a South Korean woman for wandering into a military zone.

These days, the hotel’s future is uncertain. South Korea and North Korea kicked the tires on opening it up for tourism again in 2018, but late last year Kim Jong-un toured the facility and was reportedly unimpressed. He ordered renovations in January, which never got off the ground due to the pandemic. It would appear that the resort has reached the end of its road — who, after all, would take it after North Korea? — but we wouldn’t bet against the Barrier Reef Floating Resort having one more plot twist up its sleeve.

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