Right now it's only a dream. But if Planet Ocean Underwater Hotels' founder and managing director, Tony Webb, gets his way, it could change the way people think about their next vacation — and help the environment at the same time.
In April the company announced its intention to partner with the hotel industry and open the world's latest underwater luxury boutique hotel. Furthermore, the company said that it had already submitted its business plan to both the U.S. State Department and the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Asset Control, in order to gain approval to operate in Cuba's waters.
Planet Ocean has chosen 15 undersea sites for its hotels and the coral reef restoration efforts that are part of its stated mission. The proposed sites include locations in the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean. Each hotel will sit 30 feet below sea level and afford its guests intimate views of exotic undersea life. According to its business plan, Planet Ocean plans to invest 5 percent of the total hotel construction cost in marine conservation, with a commitment of 10 percent of guest room proceeds to be invested in coral reef restoration.
It's an ambitious concept and the brainchild of Webb, a former tech executive and space expert, who wasn't even thinking about creating tourist sites on the planet Earth. "In the year 2001, I hired a lottery consultant for my international space tourism lottery," Webb told CNBC. "He was also very well versed with miniature submarines."
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The two men had intended to discuss space tourism, but the topic of "inner space" — which the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as "space at or near the Earth's surface and especially under the sea" — kept intruding on their conversation.
"From there on, inner space was always on my mind," he said.
Although Webb had spent more than a decade developing a space tourism model, the idea of building hotels underwater simply wouldn't let go. So in 2013 he shut down his space tourism effort and gave his undivided attention to the world beneath the sea. He was awarded a patent for his idea two years ago that would make the hotel — modeled after the International Space Station — a movable, modular vessel composed of 12 rooms that can be moved if possible, to keep guests safe from hurricanes.
Each pod would come with a king-size bed, bathroom, internet and massive panoramic acrylic windows looking out onto the ocean floor. And they would be outfitted with flotation side bags so there would be no risk of sinking. Guests would take an elevator down from the surface level into the main lobby, which would also have a restaurant, event rooms and observation areas.
The idea of an underwater hotel is certainly novel, and one could be forgiven for thinking it's far-fetched. However, the hotel industry has always attracted people who have looked at the untamed wild and asked, "Why not?" Even legendary hotelier Conrad Hilton once famously intended to put one of his facilities on the moon.
If a new frontier is to be conquered, then its technical challenges must be met. An underwater dwelling is no different, but Webb has drawn upon years of experience in the construction industry to help him meet these challenges.
"The two basic fabrication materials are steel and acrylic," Webb said, noting that the structure must be able to withstand the punishment dealt out by hurricanes and cyclonic storms. But if a weather event should take place that's truly biblical in nature, the hotel has been designed to rise to the ocean surface and wait it out.
"Using our top-secret ballast-control system, we have the ability to quickly surface the underwater hotel, attach our support vessel towlines, and use our 10 internal-battery bank electric power propulsion systems that are welded to the underwater hotel," he said. "We will arrive safely to our pre-planned hurricane protection hole."
Needless to say, a project of this sort can't be done on the cheap. However, Webb's estimate for the price of each facility seems low, when put in context.
"We are selling 15 locations for $3 million each," he said. "With previous proposed underwater hotels, their costs were above $200 million. ... My objective is to fabricate at cost, so the daily room rate will be affordable."
Webb isn't worried about attracting investors. He anticipated that the hotel industry as a whole will want to be a part of the adventure, and he specifically mentioned Sir Richard Branson as someone who would be naturally predisposed towards investing in such a forward-looking venture. He added that room rates will be so reasonable that the hotel should have no trouble attracting guests.
"In my document to the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control, we showed a two-guest room rate of $2,500," he said. "Our original rate was from $3,000 to $6,000."
Webb suggested that those balking at this rate should log on to Google and enter the terms "what is the most fascinating luxury room in the world" in the search field.
"You will discover our rates are very reasonable," he said. Since his suggested Google search turns up such results as the $86,000-a-night Grand Penthouse at New York City's Mark Hotel, one must conclude that he knows what he's talking about. He also added that compared to space tourism, Planet Ocean room rates are a steal, and the environment allows guests to enjoy their stay the right way.
"In my 13 years of dedicated space tourism, the suborbital space flight cost is 50 times greater and there will be no sex in space," he said.
Webb said that he was certain that once the investors have come aboard and the hotel is open to the public, keeping the rooms booked won't be a problem.
"I have received thousands of comments from the public," he said. "There are millions of people who would love to stay the night. I am certain that the day we begin fabrication and begin to accept reservations, we will be sold out in the first week."
— By Daniel Bukszpan, special to CNBC.com