Obituary: Legendary hotelier Sol Kerzner

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Hotel magnate Sol Kerzner, best known for building the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas and the Sun City resort in South Africa, died of cancer on March 21 at the Kerzner family home in Cape Town, South Africa. He was 84.

The South Africa native opened Sun City in December 1979 north of Johannesburg in an area that previously had no roads or other infrastructure. The resort was in a Bantustan (a territory set aside for black inhabitants), and the apartheid government declared the territory an independent state, enabling Sun City to have gambling and topless revues -- entertainment that was illegal in the rest of the country.

Sun City became a popular holiday destination, and it also became a lightning rod for worldwide protest against South Africa’s apartheid government. The United Nations instituted a cultural boycott of South Africa in 1980, and many musical artists refused to perform at Sun City, which had a 6,000-seat arena that did manage to draw big acts such as Frank Sinatra and rock band Queen.

In the 1980s, Sun City expanded to include four hotels and two golf courses.

Before opening Sun City, Kerzner had a long career developing South Africa hotels. He began his hospitality career in 1962, when he purchased the Astra, a small inn in Durban, South Africa, that he transformed into a popular hotel. In 1964, he opened the Beverly Hills, Umhlanga Rocks in Durban, which is said to be the first five-star hotel in South Africa. He partnered with South African Breweries to establish Southern Sun Hotels, which by 1983 operated 30 luxury hotels.

Kerzner sold his South Africa holdings in the early 1990s.

Sol Kerzner opened Atlantis Paradise Island in late 1994.
Sol Kerzner opened Atlantis Paradise Island in late 1994.

In 1994, Kerzner made his first major acquisition outside Africa -- the Paradise Island Resort in the Bahamas. A major redevelopment and expansion transformed the bankrupt property into the extravagant Atlantis Paradise Island, a 2,300-room resort with one of the world’s largest man-made marine habitats and the Caribbean’s biggest casino. Later expansions of the Cove and the Reef hotels added 1,100 rooms.

Atlantis Paradise Island president Audrey Oswell said, “Sol will remain in our hearts forever.”

“The role that Sol played in the Bahamas and in all of our lives is immeasurable and hard to put into words. As the founder of Atlantis, he will always be the father of the Atlantis family. Those of us who were fortunate enough to know him will remember his loving smile, mischievous chuckle and warm heart. He was an extraordinary man, a legend and truly remarkable.”

By the 1990s, Kerzner was working closely with his son, Butch. Together, they developed the Mohegan Sun casino resort in Connecticut and founded One&Only Resorts. In 2006, Butch Kerzner, who had recently assumed the role of CEO of Kerzner International, was killed in a helicopter accident while scouting for sites in the Dominican Republic. His father then returned to the CEO role. 

Kerzner went on to extend the Atlantis brand with the opening of Atlantis, The Palm in Dubai in 2008. In 2014, Kerzner exited Kerzner International and retired as chairman of the company.
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This report was updated on March 23 with a quote from Atlantis Paradise Island's president.

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