Underwater tourism: There's nowhere to go but down

As Richard Branson and James Cameron make high-profile submarine dives deep into the ocean and millionaires purchase luxury subs to sit on the decks of their yachts, a growing interest in underwater tourism is fueling a number of out-of-this-world projects.

“People have always been fascinated with what’s underwater,” said Bruce Jones, president of Triton and U.S. Submarines Inc., which is building what hopes to be the world’s first underwater resort in Fiji. Jones, however, has some competition to serve this new booming market.

With the announcement in May that Dubai will also build an underwater hotel, the Water Discus, the race to become the first underwater five-star destination grows fierce. The Dubai proposal will have 21 rooms at least 30 feet below the surface in a giant disc. A disc above the water will have recreational facilities – a spa, garden, and a swimming pool. Other discs will house a helipad and diving center and emergency flotation pods, with a central shaft connecting the upper and lower levels, making the complex look like a spaceship.

The entire hotel can also be raised above the water in event of an evacuation or for repairs – and should tourism go south in Dubai, it can be towed somewhere else.

Dubai previously planned to build the $300 million Hydropolis – a 250-suite underwater resort. But that project collapsed during the economic downturn. This current proposal, backed by Dubai construction company Drydocks World, Swiss brokerage firm BIG Invest Consult, and designed by Poland’s Deep Ocean Technology, will cost between just $50 and $120 million. It's the first of many planned for the region.

Jones, however, is confident his Poseidon Undersea Resort will both be built first – within the next two years – and be better. Dubai, he said, is “one of the worst places to put an undersea resort,” because of the destruction of marine life.

The Poseidon resort, which was held up by financing troubles and a coup in Fiji, will have 24 underwater suites, suites over the water, and beachfront locations. $15,000 per person will get you a week with multiple nights in each type of suite, piloting lessons in a mini-submarine, and a personal butler to move you from one room to another. The resort will also have a spa, scuba lessons, seven bars, six restaurants (one underwater, of course), and a nine-hole golf course.

Even at the steep price, 120,000 people have signed up to be informed when reservations open, said Jones. With just 7,400 spots a year, he expects the resort to be sold out for years.

If you have the money and want to avoid the wait, you could just buy an underwater house. In recognition of the booming underwater business, Triton and U.S. Submarines have a subsidiary company developing underwater commercial and residential buildings, primarily in the Middle East.

Triton Multimedia is also filming and developing a reality show about the submarine business, culminating in a dive to the bottom of the Marianas Trench. “It’ll be like World’s Deadliest Catch meets American Chopper,” said Jones.

Submarines are the driving force of the growth in the underwater tourism business. In 1986, there was just one tourist submarine. Today, there are 40. These machines, found often in tropical islands, take passengers on one-hour dives for about $95 per person.

But, the ultra-wealthy don’t want to share the experience with other passengers. Private submarines are a growing luxury item for millionaires, both as independent vessels docked at private islands and as small submarines that can sit on the decks of yachts. Hawkes Ocean Technology, Triton Subs, and SEAmagine all sell personal submarines in the $1-3 million range for wealthy clients. Or you can purchase the $60 million 65-foot submersible yacht from Triton.

Graham Hawkes, the owner of Hawkes Ocean Technology, which has developed the ultra-light, mobile submarines for Richard Branson’s deep-sea explorations, has said he plans to make private submarines more affordable as the market grows – bringing the price down to just $250,000.

If you can’t afford your own luxury sub or visit to an underwater resort, cheaper forms of underwater entertainment abound. Visit Jules Undersea Lodge in Key Largo, Florida, where guests have to scuba dive 21 feet underwater to reach the entrance. Or eat underwater at the Anantara Kihavah Villas or at the Ithaa Undersea restaurant, both in the Maldives.