Heading underwater to deliver the wow factor

Luxury hotels with underwater features are catering for affluent guests who want to dine below the waves and sleep nearly nose-to-fin with the sea life.

July 13, 2016

Norway is planning Europe’s first underwater restaurant to open in 2019, where guests will descend to restaurant through numerous levels including a submerged wardrobe area and a champagne bar. It follows in the footsteps of Dubai, Florida and the Maldives in allowing guests to dine under the waves.

The world’s largest underwater restaurant opened at the 5-star Hurawalhi Resort Maldives in August 2016 – in a setting worthy of James Bond on the Lhaviyani Attol in the Maldives. The 5.8 Undersea Restaurant will offer guests 360 degree views of sea life as well as its luxury menu and wine cellar. But the food and wine will probably seem like small bait in comparison with the dancing manta rays, butterflyfish and brightly colored damsel fish outside the window.

The restaurant’s opening is a bright spot in a choppy voyage so far for hospitality players on the look-out for unique and novel experiences. For every project that succeeds there is another which folds or whose launch is delayed.

In February 2016, for instance, India’s first underwater restaurant, the Real Poseidon in south Bhopal, opened and closed in two days because of an apparent lack of building and fire regulation certificates – health and safety issues are more demanding underwater because of limitations on emergency exits and overall water pressure, depending on depth, on the submerged structure.

On a larger scale, underwater hotel projects have been mooted for years in Dubai and off the Florida coast in the U.S., but these are yet to materialize.L

Realizing underwater ambitions

“This is a niche product,” says Nihat Ercan, Executive Vice President, Investment Sales at JLL who specializes in the hotel industry. He does not believe, for instance, that all the 90 odd countries with scuba diving opportunities in their respective waters can, or could, be feasible for submerged or partly-submerged hotels. In particular, he believes that the Indian Ocean is well suited – especially the Seychelles, Mauritius and the Maldives.

“The Maldives works very well for the underwater concept,” Ercan says. “Tourism there is generally based on the principle that one island hosts one resort.” That makes it far easier for owners to construct a jetty out to the edge of the coral reef, the overhead habitat of many aquatic species. “The coral reef habitat is also often in close proximity making it a financially feasible venture.”

There are already two underwater restaurants in the Maldives – at the Conrad Maldives on Rangali Island and Subsix at Niyama – as well as an underwater spa at Per Aquum Huvafen Fushi in Male Atoll.

The full underwater experience

The world’s oceans and waterways are playing host to different models of underwater developments. Master bedrooms in the Poseidon and Neptune suites at the Atlantis the Palm hotel in Dubai give the illusion of being underwater through ceiling-to-floor windows that look into the Ambassador Lagoon aquarium for a typical price of US$5,400 a night.

In contrast, the Underwater Room, at the Manta Resort on Zanzibar’s Pemba Island is a floating house and terrace, reachable by boat and built over three floors with the bedroom underwater. Bat fish, trumpet fish, octopus, squid and Spanish dancer jellyfish are among the marine life that have been attracted to the Underwater Room’s specially cultivated coral reef. Elsewhere, the 11 Ocean Suites off Singapore’s Sentosa Island have a similar structure, based on the model of a “deluxe two storey townhouse” with a price tag of about US$2,200 a night.

And taking the idea of an immersive experience to the next level, Lovers Deep, moored in the Caribbean, is actually a submarine which can go whisk guests around the underwater sights including a coral reef off the coast of St. Lucia or a sunken battleship. Meanwhile, at the Jules’ Undersea Lodge off Florida’s Key Largo, guests need to scuba dive 21 feet below the water to sleep surrounded by tropical mangrove.

Making the business plans watertight

Investors developing in the right location and who can come up with the right business plan could reel in a decent return, in Ercan’s view. “From a room rate perspective you can charge a premium,” he says. “And underwater rooms can be cheaper to develop than overwater villas.” As with the Hurawalhi restaurant, the structures can be prefabricated offsite and then submerged – saving on local construction costs.

And while the number of available underwater destinations is small, the market for the novelty experience they deliver is rapidly expanding as more people seek out once-in-a-lifetime visits to unusual destinations. “In order to stay competitive resorts need to cater for millennials who have time and higher income levels at their disposal,” says Ercan. “They are focused on unique experiences.”

The prospect of sleeping with sting-rays is likely to catch their eye but the niche sector faces strong competition from other memorable accommodation such penthouse suites, high-end safari lodges, remote islands with an interesting story to tell and designer properties such as the Armani Hotel at the top of the Burj Al Khalif in Dubai.

It’s very much early days for underwater tourism – but with strong demand and bigger and bolder developments on the planning board, the idea of staying below the seas is becoming one to add to the holiday wish list.