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World’s most glamorous airport hotel ups the travel hub scene

Incheon International Airport, South Korea (CNN) — If the changes afoot in South Korea take hold around the world, we may be ushering in a new era of airport hotels.
Though the hospitality industry has made great strides in delivering unique accommodations — underwater! in a space station! in a guitar! — airport hotels have mostly been left out of the loop.

Serviceable but unremarkable, the airport hotel has typically been designed for the business traveler focused on getting from point A to point B.

Paradise City, however, outside Incheon International Airport, oozes glamor. It’s the hottest airport hotel around.

Art-tainment

The $2-billion-plus resort has been eight years in the making.

The $2-billion-plus resort has been eight years in the making.

Courtesy Paradise City & Resort

The moment you walk through the main door into the grand lobby and look up to see Damien Hirst’s “Legend” — a half gold, half flayed Pegasus (because: Damien Hirst) — with one of Yayoi Kusama’s giant glass polka-dotted pumpkins behind it, you start to get the sense that there’s little about Paradise City that’s unremarkable.

Adding to this scene is a dramatic spiral stone staircase. It’s hard to pinpoint the room’s centerpiece, though it may be the diamond-shaped crystal ball chandelier above the pumpkin art.

Yayoi Kusama's pumpkin sits confidently under a crystal chandelier.

Yayoi Kusama’s pumpkin sits confidently under a crystal chandelier.

Paradise City & Resort

There are, in fact, about 3,000 pieces of original art throughout the complex.

The $2-billion-plus “art-tainment” resort, about an hour from Seoul and less than a mile from Incheon International Airport, was conceived in 2011.

The 50-year-old South Korean hospitality brand Paradise, in conjunction with Japanese entertainment company Sega Sammy, took the airport’s accessibility into account: Incheon can be reached by the 55 million people living in Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo via a 90-minute or less flight. And with flights from Japan to South Korea dropping below $10 earlier this week, a Paradise City trip is accessible, indeed.

The 3 million square foot complex has been opening in phases since 2017 (March 2019 marked its completion), and every step suggests a redefining of both the airport hotel and the once-staid travel hub.

Hotels on the horizon

"Where art meets luxury," goes the Paradise City slogan.

“Where art meets luxury,” goes the Paradise City slogan.

Courtesy Ossip van Duivenbode

Because no one’s ever expected them to, hoteliers have never had to put much thought into their airport properties. Ernie Catanzaro, executive vice president of Blue Sky Properties, which owns several hotels in the southern US, describes the traditional airport hotel as “a regular box … you’re forced to stay there.”

The dining is an afterthought, if a thought at all.

This is perhaps twice as true for travel hubs — those economy-of-scale passenger funnels born of airline consolidation in the Gulf States and deregulation in the US. Travelers have more or less learned to treat these hubs as a necessary means to an end.

But with Dubai and Reykjavik — two of the original global hubs — showing the world that entire national economies could be built on the backs of a good layover, destinations around the world are attempting to follow suit.

From free city tours in Singapore to drastic hotel deals in Doha to fast and nearly free trains that can turn even a four-hour layover in Vancouver into a chance to pop over to Granville Island, the airport landscape is changing.

Paradise City is the latest participant.

Expectations surpassed

Courtesy Paradise City & Resort

The main building was designed by luxe hotel specialists WATG Architects (Emirates Palace, Atlantis Paradise Island). Paradise Hotel, a part of the behometh structure, has 711 spacious rooms, each with original pieces by Korean artists, as well as four distinct restaurants, a spa with a pool — and six-figure valued art everywhere you look.

But this, it turns out, is merely prologue.

After getting a taste of the decadent lobby, turn left at the Hirst to encounter a lit tunnel. Experience all the colors of the rainbow as the walkway leads you to the plaza, a huge, tent-ceilinged atrium with permanent and pop-up shops, including, in the winter, a Christmas market as big as most you’d find along the Danube.

There are permanent shops here, too. The best is Joanne Teddy Bear, where famed bear designer Joanne Oh sells her handmade bears for as much as $5,000 for a vintage one from the 1980s (Joanne Bear Museum exists on Jeju Island off South Korea’s south coast for aficionados).

Past the stores is the Paradise Art Space, a nook as big as a large suburban home housing a single piece, Jeff Koons’ “Gazing Ball (Farnese Hercules),” a faithful reproduction of the famous second-century CE sculpture residing in the National Museum in Naples.

Wander outside, and you’ll see pieces by Anish Kapoor and Lee Yongbaek. And the building to the right of the Art Space is a second, smaller hotel.

Bonus boutique hotel

Art Paradiso is what you imagine a boutique hotel would look like if it were designed by Toulouse-Lautrec and funded by the Rothschilds. Soft light, quiet, with dark, gilt woods and vermillion bouquets.

The two-story rooms are heavy with marble, featuring high-end Burmester sound systems, black marble dining tables, and large white marble bathrooms designed around circular bathtubs six feet in diameter.

A member of the exclusive Small Luxury Hotels (SLH), the rooms can be relatively inexpensive, despite their elegance, going for as little as $250 in the off season, though the bigger ones can also go as high as one of those vintage teddy bears.

Artsy Art Paradiso

The Wonderbox theme park offers chic family fun.

The Wonderbox theme park offers chic family fun.

Courtesy Paradise City & Resort

Art Paradiso’s windows overlook a courtyard where Dutch architecture powerhouse MVRDV put a night club (the biggest in Northeast Asia, natch) and an enclosed children’s theme park that are architecturally playful in a way rarely seen in North America.

The facades, in 3,869 unique concrete panels, are reflections of the main hotel they face, right down to the door knobs and hinges.

Relaxing with 2,000 other people

Courtesy Paradise City & Resort

You know a spa’s big when it’s easier to measure in acres than square feet. Paradise City’s about 3.25 acres, and is modeled after Venice’s Piazza San Marco, though its facilities benefit from one of the world’s oldest and most developed spa cultures.

Known as jjimjilbang, Korean spas are fundamentally communal, and this one can host as many as 2,000 spa-goers at once (while guaranteeing them each more than 100 square feet of personal space).

In addition to the usual spa stuff, there are high-temperature saunas — actual human-scale kilns in this case — inspired by traditional Korean treatments, known as Hanjeungmak.

Monte Carlo of the East

Gambling is illegal for Koreans, so the casino is for foreigners only.

Gambling is illegal for Koreans, so the casino is for foreigners only.

Courtesy Paradise City & Resort

All this, in addition to a bowling alley and a multi-room gaming center constructed around multi-player versions of Sega games, can make the attached casino seem like an afterthought, though of course it’s the engine that drives the whole thing.

With 449 gaming stations, as well as various VIP amenities, at the foreigner-only casino (gambling is illegal for Koreans) gamblers have plenty to keep them busy.

The casino has been so successful, in fact, that it’s already given rise to plans for two neighboring casino resorts, one by Las Vegas mainstay Caesar’s set to open in 2021, and another from the North American Indigenous-owned Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority.

If things go as planned, Incheon — now known primarily for its airport and as the site of one of the biggest battles of the Korean War — could join Vegas, Atlantic City and Macau as a global gaming center, though if Paradise City’s more culturally sophisticated approach is any indication, it could end up more of a Monte Carlo of the East.

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