News this week that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un wants to spruce up the site where the world’s first floating hotel is moored brought back memories of one of the most bizarre trips I’ve ever done. In 2003, I stayed at the not-so-salubrious floating hotel on North Korea’s east coast, along with a small group of Australian travel writers.
We were the only westerners among a much bigger group of Koreans who were seeking to reunite with loved ones and/or climb Mount Kumgang (Diamond Mountain), a place that has an almost spiritual significance for many Koreans. Our visit was permitted during a brief window in the on-again, off-again saga of visits to Mount Kumgang.
At that stage, the border near Mount Kumgang had been open about five years. By 2008, visits were suspended after a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist who wandered into a military area.
In 2003, crossing the four-kilometre DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) took four hours because of all the rigmarole and security checks involved. We travelled in a slow-moving convoy of 17 buses, with military escort at the front and rear, through a ravaged landscape peppered with signs warning of landmines.
All 350 people who crossed that day were assigned an individual number and a bus number that had to be worn with identification on a lanyard at all times. On arrival at the Mount Kumgang resort, we found ourselves in what was effectively a South Korean enclave owned by Hyundai, with a Korean bathhouse, acrobatic show and little else in the way of entertainment.
The mist-shrouded landscape beyond the DMZ was indeed beautiful. We trailled behind elderly Koreans who raced up Mount Kumgang like mountain goats, were herded into buses to view the picturesque coastline (catching only fleeting glimpses of the locals), and a few of us borrowed bikes, riding like naughty children and photographing roadside posters of North Korea’s then ‘Dear Leader’, the late Kim Jong-il, father of current leader Kim Jong-un.
Accommodation in the 200-room Hotel Haegumgang was comfortable but unremarkable – but it did have Australian power points! This was because it had originally been built as a floating resort for Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The brainchild of entrepreneur Doug Tarca, it was built in Singapore and towed more than 5,000 kilometres to the reef near Townsville, where it opened in 1988 as the world’s first floating hotel.
Ambitiously, it was launched as a 5-star resort with nightclubs, bars, restaurants, even a tennis court and swimming pool. The venture was short-lived, however, and by 1989 the floating hotel embarked on a wild ride, initially to Saigon where it operated until 1997. It was then sold to Hyundai Asan, developers of the Mount Kumgang tourist resort, but has been largely vacant since the tours ceased in 2008.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un last year agreed to restart tours to the resort, but news reports this week suggest that Kim Jong-un is not at all happy with the facilities. Photographed standing on the dock in front of Hotel Haegumgang, he likened the facilities to “makeshift tents in a disaster-stricken area”.
“They are not only very backward in terms of architecture but look so shabby as they are not properly cared for,” he was quoted as saying. “The buildings are just a hotchpotch with no national character at all.”
He called for the “unpleasant-looking facilities” to be removed and rebuilt to “meet (North Korea’s) own sentiment and aesthetic taste”. It will be interesting to see how that translates.
In reporting Kim Jong-un’s comments this week, the ABC said the Townsville Maritime Museum houses a popular exhibition about the world’s first floating hotel. Many people have donated memorabilia and it holds a certain nostalgia for those who visited the resort or were involved with it.