Lost luxury: The crumbling allure of abandoned hotels

Story highlights

  • Volatile global economy has created an array of abandoned luxury hotels
  • Fascination with these empty buildings has become a tourism industry of its own

(CNN)When it comes to ruined buildings, it's hard to match the poignancy of an abandoned luxury hotel.

Once they were places where the wealthy came to play or the less fortunate came to experience a glamor beyond their usual means.
    Their fall from grace speaks of shattered dreams, faded glories and unforgiving economic realities.
    And yet, because they seem to still cling to the ghosts of happier times, they remain fascinating destinations, particularly for photographers and enthusiasts seeking to preserve remnants of their luxurious past.
    The magical Italian castle of Sammezzano, in the foothills of Tuscany, is a classic example.
    It's been unused for more than two decades but has housed both nobility and paying guests.
    The 17th century palazzo came of age in the 1800s when eccentric Italian nobleman Ferdinando Panciatichi Ximenes of Aragon spent 40 years turning its rooms into mosaic masterpieces inspired by the Arab, Indian, Persian and Spanish worlds.
    It was converted into a luxury hotel in the 1970s, but the business folded in 1990 when its majestic charms were sealed off from the world.
    Sammezzano was auctioned off in 1999 to be renovated into a luxury resort, complete with spa and golf courses, but these plans failed.
    It's been up for sale three times in the past two years, initially for $40.4 million, later a bargain $13.69 million.

    East meets West

    On sale: Castello de Sammezzano could be yours for $14 million.
    The castle's interiors have fallen prey to looters, leaving it with no running water or electricity -- the cost of repairs proving too much for investors.
    It stands in the sleepy town of Leccio -- its population a mere 1,000 residents.
    "They all know and love Sammezzano," explains Massimo Sottani, a former mayor of the town who worked as a waiter in the castle when at university, and held his wedding reception at the hotel in 1987.
    "Sammezzano is private property, but people from Leccio go jogging in its wonderful park.
    "In a certain way they feel it is a part of their own lives, so everybody is deeply involved in its destiny."
    Sottani is president of Committee FPXA, a group of local volunteers founded in 2013 to preserve the castle's legacy and open it up to sightseers through rare viewings.
    Despite opening doors just six to eight days a year, it's clocked up 15,000 visitors.
    "People want to come to Sammezzano essentially to take photos, but Sammezzano is more than this," says Sottani.
    "I can't imagine a better place where East and West can meet in the name of beauty."

    Growth market

    Hachijo Oriental Resort boasts sea views and French baroque architecture.
    Sammezzano is not alone.
    A volatile global economy left luxury hotels abandoned across the world. And the appeal of visiting them extends beyond Italy.
    Abandoned buildings have become a growth market in Japanese tourism.
    The phenomenon there is known as Haikyo, literally meaning "ruins."
    Photographer Shane Thoms has been capturing the fledgling scene for his upcoming exhibition "Haikyo: The Modern Ruins of Japan," on display at Melbourne's Sofitel Melbourne on Collins from December 8, 2016 until February 28, 2017.
    "The collapse of the asset [real estate] price bubble in the early 90s led to these abandoned places, which Japanese youths ended up photographing," says Thoms.
    "A lot of Japanese teenagers are obsessed with horror movies and ghost stories so it's become a big market."
    His most striking photographs are of the Hachijo Oriental resort -- on Hachijo-jima island, once known as the Hawaii of Japan -- but abandoned for over a decade.
    The hotel was shut in 2005 because dwindling guest bookings meant it could no longer afford to employ the staff numbers needed to upkeep it.
    "It would have succeeded in New York City or something like that -- but a tiny island that no one visits anymore -- it just went into liquidation," he says.

    Sofitel Melbourne on Collins, 25 Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria 3000 Australia;

    Niagara Falls

    Fallside Inn, near Niagara Falls, opened in 1957.
    In the US, despite pulling in 12 million annual visitors, Niagara Falls is no stranger to abandonment says urban explorer Matthew Christopher, whose Facebook page "Abandoned America" has more than 400,000 followers.
    "How do you reconcile people coming in to see natural beauty, yet they are driving through a stretch of chemical plants to get there and later on, abandoned chemical plants?" he says. "It's not exactly a place you want to go for your honeymoon."
    Some former luxury hotels have found new roles offering more rudimentary living.
    Once lauded as the "pride of Africa," the art deco-inspired Grande Hotel in Mozambique's coastal city of Beira is today home to some 3,500 squatters.
    Built overlooking the Indian Ocean, it boasted an Olympic-size pool, restaurants, bars, a post office, cinema and shops.
    It closed in 1963, fewer than 10 years after it opened, having failed to attract the number of guests that were expected.

    Pride of Africa

    Brazilian photojournalist Fellipe Abreu spent time in the Grande's labyrinthine halls talking to current residents.
    "Inside, the old hotel is dark and humid," he says. "On all sides and especially around the building, piles of garbage accumulate year after year.
    "With the lack of maintenance, nature has started to regain its space."
    Not all are happy with the attention that former luxury hotels attract.
    In the case of Hachijo Oriental, security has been upgraded due to tourists breaking windows to get a look inside.
    But such interest is to be expected, says urban explorer Christopher.
    "Being able to understand how these places fell apart and were rebuilt, or in some cases not, is incredibly fascinating."