A traveller’s first thoughts at the words ‘luxury hotel’ usually don’t include scuba diving 21 feet through the ocean in order to get to the front door. But that’s exactly what greets guests arriving at Jules’ Undersea Lodge, the world’s first underwater hotel, which opened in Florida Keys in 1986.
A quick look at its visitor list suggests that it’s doing something right, with a score of celebrities including Toy Story’s Tim Allen and Canada’s former prime minister Pierre Trudeau having passed through its watertight doors. But the likelihood is that they’ve visited once, and once was enough. Underwater hotels are to wealthy adults what the newest dog chew is to a spoilt pedigree – a novelty to be momentarily appreciated and then ripped apart when the realisation dawns that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
But that still hasn’t stopped other underwater hotels from springing up across the ocean floor over the past few years – or at least trying to. The $1.8bn Atlantis Hotel in Dubai is 23 stories high but it still offers underwater suites, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking directly into the Ambassador Lagoon, for $8,800 per night. The hotel also houses Ossiano, Time Out’s Best Seafood Restaurant 2013 and 2014, which offers guests the same remarkable view into the lagoon while they dine. Conrad Rangali in the Maldives offers a similar experience at its Ithaa restaurant, which can be found 16 feet beneath the surface of the Indian Ocean – so it seems that these hoteliers have overlooked the fact guests might not want to admire the world’s finest fish on their plate while they’re simultaneously swimming past their windows.
Underwater hotels are to wealthy adults what the newest dog chew is to a spoilt pedigree
All of this is provided that the plans actually make it to the reality stage. Despite the odd success, the majority of these projects seem to mysteriously fade away as soon as the world starts getting excited – but that’s no surprise, given their sheer outlandishness. Dubai was planning on adding a yet more impressive resort to its current hoard in the form of the futuristic, $550m cylinder-shaped undersea Hydropolis, originally due to open by the end of 2006. The project was then postponed to 2009 due to ‘technical issues’ – and as of 2013, it was still only twenty percent complete. The hotel was set to feature 220 suites (at a nightly price tag of around $5,500), along with a cinema educating guests about underwater life and a connecting subway to transport them to the hotel’s centre – a solution perhaps preferable to scuba diving, but apparently less realistic given the developers’ failure to follow through with it.
But developers clearly haven’t learnt their lesson: Fiji’s much anticipated bubble-shaped Poseidon Undersea Resort, on which construction began in 2001, was originally due for completion in 2008. It’s still not ready, and its developers recently announced that they were halting plans for a further six years. That means that its planned wedding chapel, private jet and weekly $15,000 price tag will have to wait a while – as will the 150,000 guests reported to be on its waiting list. Making an exciting promise is one thing, but turning it into reality is another. And it’s something that these developers are quite clearly struggling to do.
Polish firm Deep Ocean Technology is another example. In 2012 it announced that it would be building the world’s largest undersea pad yet – the Water Discus Hotel, once again in Dubai, was set to house 21 luxury underwater rooms within its UFO-like architecture. But not content with these plans alone, the firm then added an even more ambitious project to its repertoire: an eco-friendly hotel in the Great Barrier Reef. Unsurprisingly, both plans are still yet to actually materialise. And yet even more dubious are the plans for the Planet Ocean Underwater Hotel in Florida Keys: its website promises a hotel at $3,000 for a two night stay, which is already payable online – even though a specific location still hasn’t been identified for it. While that isn’t likely to do wonders in encouraging customer confidence, it also places a fairly substantial ring of doubt over its other claims, such as it being ‘reef-friendly’.
Such a promise isn’t unique to Planet Ocean. Naturally most of these hotels claim that they’re actually helping the eco-systems that they’re enforcing themselves upon: the Hydropolis promised to protect and revive interest in sea-life through its foundation programme, while Jules’ Lodge’s owner Ian Koblick claims that his resort “serves as an artificial reef”, adding on the website that “the flow of air to the Lodge constantly adds oxygen to the entire surrounding body of water, creating a symbiotic relationship between the technology of man and the beauty of nature.”
How reliable such claims are is debatable – hurling a man-made construction into the middle of the ocean is surely going to have some negative impact on marine life. This was precisely the concern of local dive operators when plans surfaced back in 2008 for Reefworld; a floating hotel in the Great Barrier Reef that claimed it would become the first ‘fully eco-friendly floating hotel’ in the world. If the assertions are anything like the plans themselves, however, they’re just empty words.
Alongside Jules’ Lodge, one of the few hotels which has actually turned its promises into reality, is the underwater Utter Inn in Sweden, located 1km away from the shore and 3m below the surface of Lake Mälaren. Guests can even get dinner delivered by the sculptor and artist who created it, Mikael Genberg. The downside is it only has one room (though admittedly a more affordable one, at $500 per night).
This brings to the fore the reality that ambitious underwater hotels with more than one or two rooms are a lot less easy to produce than their colourful websites and flamboyant pictures suggest. And even if extravagant plans for these luxury hotels do eventually materialise, it’s difficult to see who their demographic might be. The gimmicky feel of an underwater hotel could put off those looking for a luxury resort in the seven-star price bracket, while on the flipside these costs don’t make any of these resorts particularly affordable for families – the only people who might be genuinely excited by the prospect of surrounding themselves by fish for a week.
And if any of these aspects don’t put off potential customers, the fear of residing several feet below the surface of the water still might. Undersea dwellings of course put safety as a top priority: “The engineers at U.S. Submarines have incorporated many of the same safety systems found in tourist subs into the Poseidon Undersea Resort,” a spokesperson for Poseidon told The Daily Mail when Fiji’s project was still underway. “Tourist submarines carry approximately 1m passengers each year and have a perfect safety record, making them statistically the world’s safest form of transportation,” he added. An aquaphobic may not be so easily convinced, however.
Even if the idea does intrigue prospective guests enough to overcome potential fears and try it out, it’s hard to see the novelty lasting beyond the first stay. Of course we won’t know if that’s true until some of these grand plans materialise – but as with other crazes in the recent novelty travel movement (like Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, recently postponed once again), whether and when this actually happens still remains to be seen.