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Breaking Travel News obituary: Sol Kerzner

Breaking Travel News obituary: Sol Kerzner

Legendary hotelier Sol Kerzner has passed away at home in Cape Town following a battle with cancer.

He was 84-years-of-age.

Over the course of a storied career, he developed some of the best hospitality establishments ever seen, achieving success in his native South Africa and then around the world.

Here Breaking Travel News takes a look back at his colourful life.

The youngest of four children, Solomon Kerzner was born in Doornfontein, Johannesburg to Lithuanian-born Jewish immigrants.

His parents ran a store selling fruit and vegetables.

A diminutive child, Kerzner was reportedly bullied at school and took up boxing as a form of defence.

In one of his many successes, he would later become a welterweight champion, famous for his sharp left hook.

After he matriculated from Damelin College, he wanted to work on cars, but his father, Morris, encouraged him to go to university.

He graduated with honours in accounting from the University of Witwatersrand, and qualified as a chartered accountant while working at an accounting practice.

Here he made a small fortune before turning his eye to hospitality, developing award-winning resorts in his native South Africa as well as in Europe, North America, Asia, Middle East, Caribbean and Australasia.

His breakthrough project was the construction of the Beverley Hills in Umhlanga Rocks - the first five-star hotel in South Africa.

This was joined by the Elangeni & Maharani, just down the coast.

In 1969, just seven years after opening his first hotel and dinner club in downtown Durban, he formed a partnership with South African Breweries to create the Southern Sun group – the company that would make him a legend.


Kerzner’s determination to promote luxury travel was evident in the many five-star properties he developed during his tenure with Southern Sun.

Due to the rigid apartheid gaming laws, he was forced to look to other African countries and in 1972 he built Botswana’s five-star Chobe Game Lodge – where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton spontaneously tied the knot on what was supposed to be a two-day visit to the bush retreat.

In the mid-1970s, when foreign investment in South Africa had reached an all-time low, Kerzner broke into the Mauritian market, opening the five-star Le Saint Géran Resort in 1975.

The property went on to claim a number of top titles at the World Travel Awards, including recognition as Africa’s Leading Spa Resort in 2001 and 2002.

Always one step ahead of the game, Kerzner’s move proved to be lucrative and gave Southern Sun the financial boost it needed for his “breakout development”.

Back in South Africa, negotiations with the tribal council of Bophuthatswana would turn in his favour and, once the gaming licence was in place, Sun City development began.

In 1979, there was a massive buzz around Kerzner’s “pleasure paradise in the Pilanesberg” and on its opening weekend, 15,000 people crammed through Sun City’s gates to sample South Africa’s richest resort.

It was a massive undertaking for a hotelier in those days, but the gamble paid off, catapulting Kerzner into the limelight and reinforcing his aspirations to inject some glamour into the South African hotel industry.

Sun City was not only an architectural feat, but the resort also symbolised Kerzner’s obsession to push the boundaries and indulge his guests’ wildest fantasies.

For a “numbers man”, he had an incredible imagination and Sun City showed him just how far he could push the limits.

Although long hours and a jet-setting lifestyle triggered a near-fatal heart attack in 1980, Kerzner was back at work two weeks later to begin plans on the three-star Aloe Ridge hotel, as well as on a new casino-resort on South Africa’s majestic Wild Coast.

Plans were also finalised to build a 6,000-seater entertainment arena with the vision of bringing the world’s biggest superstars to the Sun City stage.

Despite boycotts by the international community, Sun City’s star power pulled the crowds with its line-up of headline-making acts – Dolly Parton, Eric Clapton, Sting, Queen, Elton John, Liberace, Michael Jackson, Shirley Bassey, The Beach Boys, Linda Ronstadt and Liza Minnelli, to name a few.

To add to the experience, he bolstered Sun City’s resort appeal with the addition of an 18-hole golf course, designed by long-time friend and golfing legend Gary Player, two additional hotels (the Cascades and the Cabanas), a man-made lake for watersports, and Africa’s first mono-rail, the Skytrain, which still operates today.

The hotelier’s fastidious attention to detail spilled into every part of Sun City’s ten-year development and, at a time when gambling and topless revue shows were banned in South Africa, Sun City’s “glamorous sheen” captured the imagination of entertainment-hungry South Africans.

As recorded in the scintillating commercial, Sun City encapsulated the hedonistic spirit of the 1980s.

During its long and successful history, the location has picked up innumerable trophies at the World Travel Awards, including recent recognition as Africa’s Leading Resort.

If Sun City was all about decadence and escapism, Kerzner made sure he filled the resort with the best experiences and events that money could buy.

Although Sun City was developed as part of the Southern Sun group in 1979, it was the biggest asset in the portfolio of casinos and hotels that Kerzner would retain before leaving the company to launch Sun International in 1983.

In 1984, after successfully listing Sun International on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, he raised the capital to fund Sun City’s first five-star hotel – the R50-million Cascades.

That year, Sun International opened Lesotho Sun in the Basotho Kingdom (now Lesotho) and, as gaming licences became available in the surrounding homelands, the expansion continued with the opening of Morula Sun, Fish River Sun and Naledi Sun in 1989.

Namibia’s Kalahari Sands Hotel and Casino followed in 1990, and Carousel Casino was added to the portfolio in 1991.

By the end of the decade Sun City had cemented itself as a world-class holiday destination and with things on course, Kerzner turned his attention to his next project: a 338-room luxury hotel built around 25-hectares of exotic jungle and designed to inspire the mystery of a lost civilisation.

As one of Kerzner’s greatest architectural accomplishments, the Palace of the Lost City oozed African opulence, with its lavish interiors, locally crafted furniture and hand-painted lobby ceiling that was designed to resemble Rome’s Sistine Chapel.

Kerzner never took his eye off the ball operationally and on bigger properties like Sun City, he worked tirelessly to redefine service standards in the hotel industry.

From the concierge to the croupier, he demanded excellence from the people he hired and made sure they supported his vision to keep the guests guessing.

“The challenge is to get people to commit to the idea of blowing the customer away by giving them an experience ahead of what they expect,” he famously said.

Although Kerzner branched out of the South African market in the late 1980s, it was only after the opening of the Lost City that he seized his next opportunity: to salvage a bankrupt development in the Bahamas.

After the purchase of Paradise Island Resort for US$125 million in 1994, Kerzner launched a massive redevelopment programme, demolishing most of the property to make way for two hotels, a 60-hectare themed waterpark and a casino.

Following the opening of the Royal Towers in 1998, Kerzner re-branded Paradise Island – and launched his new suite of luxury resorts – Atlantis.

Atlantis, Paradise Island, Bahamas would go on to scoop a host of top titles at the World Travel Awards, including trophies for Caribbean’s Leading Casino Resort for the past two years.

Many acquisitions ensued and, in 1996, Kerzner opened the hugely successful Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, USA, through a joint partnership with the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut.

A 1,200-room hotel was added to the casino complex four years later.

By now, the hotel magnate had become renowned for redefining the scale of destination resorts and, following the success of his efforts overseas, in 2002, Kerzner launched his second luxury resort collection, One&Only Resorts.

As he expanded the reach of the One&Only and Atlantis brands to major tourist destinations, Kerzner sought the advice of his eldest son, Howard (affectionately known as Butch), who took over as chief executive of the company in 2003.

Butch’s appetite for risk matched his father’s and developments in Singapore, London and Dubai were being finalised under his tenure as leadership of Kerzner International Holdings.

Tragically, in October 2006, Kerzner’s presumptive heir was killed in a helicopter accident in the Dominican Republic.

This was a devastating blow for the elder hotelier as “the company would never become a family business”.

In 2008, as part of a massive US$1.5-billion joint-venture with the Dubai-based Istithmar World, Kerzner honoured his son’s legacy with the opening of Atlantis, the Palm – a 1,539-room hotel comprising a seven-hectare waterpark on Dubai’s prestigious Palm Jumeirah Island.

To open his Dubai showstopper, Kerzner spent US$20 million – the largest amount ever spent on a hotel launch – for an evening that included performances by friends Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Natalie Cole, as well as a fireworks display by the company that lit up the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

The property would go on to be recognised as the World’s Leading Landmark Resort by the World Travel Awards

In 2009, Kerzner made his South African comeback with the opening of the six-star One&Only hotel at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront.

The hotel cost US$128 million to build and opened six months ahead of schedule to cater for the influx of tourists attending the 2010 Soccer World Cup.

The hotel was honoured as South Africa’s Leading Hotel in 2017 by the World Travel Awards

The same year, Mazagan Beach & Golf Resort joined the Kerzner collection in Morocco.

The 500-room destination golf and casino resort on the outskirts of Casablanca would be honoured in time as the World’s Leading Beach & Casino Resort by voters at the World Travel Awards.

To cap it off, that year, Kerzner received news that he had been included on Queen Elizabeth’s honours list and was awarded the Insignia of knight commander of the most distinguished order of St Michael and St George for his contribution to business and the community of the Bahamas.

During Kerzner’s 18-year tenure as the chairman of Kerzner International Holdings, the company enjoyed massive growth of the One&Only and Atlantis brands in exotic locations, from the Maldives and Mexico to Montenegro and Mauritius.

An industry leader in Dubai was the One&Only Royal Mirage, an indulgent property in abundant space, with luxurious rooms, nine inspiring restaurants and dramatic, Arabesque architecture.

Set in more than 65 acres of immaculate gardens, soothing fountains, arches, domes and intricate Arabic details, there are meandering pathways that lead down to a one-kilometre sweep of Jumeirah Beach.

So successful was the hotel, it has been recognised as the United Arab Emirates’ Leading Resort for the past three years by voters at the World Travel Awards.

Although Kerzner stepped down for the second time as chairman of the company in 2012, he emerged from semi-retirement a year later, partnering with a privately owned Asian company to bring Atlantis to the South China Sea.

The US$1.8 billion resort is considered Kerzner’s last contribution to the industry before he took the decision to retire in London.

The hotel would go on to be recognised as offering China’s Leading Hotel Suite by World Travel Awards voters.

He stepped down for good in 2014 after the Investment Corporation of Dubai took a sizeable stake in Kerzner International.

Following his death, a spokesman for Kerzner International said: “Sol was a visionary pioneer, inventing the concept of entertainment destination resorts, first with Sun City in South Africa and then with the iconic Atlantis resorts around the world.

“In addition, he originated bespoke luxury resorts, with the introduction of One&Only, a philosophy of unique, authentic, ultra-luxury experiences with genuine service from the heart.

“He not only built resorts, he built destinations, always finding the best location for his vision and celebrating each country in which we operate.”

They added: “Sol was also an incredible leader.

“He connected with every team member and challenged us to become innovators and entrepreneurs.

“His boundless energy and passion inspired thousands of colleagues around the globe.

“While he retired as chairman of Kerzner International in 2014, we are proud to honour his immense legacy.”

Kerzner was married four times.

He had three children – Butch (Howard), Andrea, and Beverly – with his first wife, Maureen.

Two children – Brandon and Chantal – were born from his marriage with his second wife, Shirley.

In 1980, he married Miss World 1974, Anneline Kriel.

They divorced in 1985.

He got engaged to model Christina Estrada in the late 1990s, but ended up marrying her friend Heather Murphy instead, in 2000.

They divorced in 2011.

Kerzner is survived by his children Andrea, Beverley, Brandon and Chantal and ten grandchildren.

He will be buried at a small, private funeral attended by only his immediate family.