Sol Kerzner's motto is forget taste and think huge

2001-01-21 15:57

Bahamas – The difference between tacky and classy, kitsch and quality, is simply a matter of scale.

That's the opinion of the man who stuck flying machines, sharks and submarines into a casino built on the myth of the lost civilisation of Atlantis.

Make it big - absolutely, mind-boggling huge - says international hotelier Sol Kerzner, and anything that might be perceived as gaudy, vulgar or just plain ridiculous will be swallowed whole.

"The scale is reality," says Kerzner, a controversial, 64-year-old South African who rose from humble origins to become a global developer of "theme" resorts that are anything but humble.

He is sitting in the lobby of the Ocean Club, where he and a few hundred of his friends are celebrating the re-opening of the renovated resort.

"If you don't do stuff to the proper scale, you run the risk of being hokey," he says.

It's a strategy that has worked spectacularly for the short, swarthy Kerzner who, despite his reputation for volatility in the business world, comes off as friendly and avuncular in conversation.

His company, Sun International Hotels, operates resort hotels and casinos in the Bahamas as well as in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Kerzner owns Resorts International, which he is trying to sell. He also operates the $267m African-fantasy resort called The Lost City, part of the larger Sun City resort, a two-hour drive from Johannesburg.

Sun International, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange and which reported net income of more than $110m last quarter, also gets annual buyout payments from the Mohegan Sun Resort and Casino in Connecticut, where the Mohegam Indian Nation has taken over management of both the resort hotel and casino.

The biggest of Kerzner's interests is the Atlantis Resort and Casino on Paradise Island, a sprawling pink complex as close as one can get to a surreal, Caribbean Disney World.

It's the world's largest island resort, everything built to colossal scale, from the raging-horse sculpture in front, to the cavernous lobby, to the dredged lagoon where sharks and manta rays swim freely, to "The Dig," an underwater "archaeological" exhibit that can only be described as Jacques Cousteau meets Timothy Leary.

Kerzner readily agrees his motto could be: Never let realism stand in the way of a good theme.

"When we were planning Atlantis, I said to the guys, Why don't we build a Mayan temple? They said, Mayan? It doesn't fit in historically or factually with what we're doing. I said, 'That's the great thing about Atlantis: you can start in Europe and end in Mexico. You can choose whatever story you like.' Again, it's the scale that will make people come. And people seem to really love it."

Indeed, they do. Before Kerzner bought the Paradise Island Resort in 1995 and rebuilt it into Atlantis, the Bahamas tourism industry was in a slump, losing ground for five straight years, according to the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. With the success of Atlantis, the industry has been revitalised, a fact that tends to allow politicians to ignore a Kerzner past that is, at the very least, controversial.

The son of Lithuanian Jewish parents who emigrated from Russia, Kerzner was born in a suburb of racially torn Johannesburg. After working his way up the entrepreneurial ladder, he gained international notoriety by drawing international stars such as Frank Sinatra and the rock group, Queen, to his spectacular Sun City resort in Bophutatswana, despite a United Nations-sanctioned boycott.

He has been accused of playing both ends of the political spectrum in South Africa, giving secret donations to the African National Congress when it was a "terrorist" liberation movement, a fact Nelson Mandela confirmed to the Sunday Independent newspaper in 1996, as well as contributing to the apartheid government.

In 1997, Kerzner successfully blocked a book, "Kerzner Unauthorised," by journalist Allan Greenblo, which accused him of corrupt dealings with the apartheid government, and of profiteering from apartheid policies.

The book also went into details involving his messy divorce from former Miss World, Anneline Kriel of South Africa. Kerzner followed that with a string of romances with mostly younger women, which led the South African Sunday Times newspaper to dub him one of the country's "distinctive kitsch folk."

No matter. Bahamas Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham recited some telling government statistics in a speech in December at the official re-opening of the Ocean Club: Tourist arrivals to Nassau and Paradise Island have increased 33% since Atlantis was built, hotel occupancy rates are up nearly 18% and room rates have soared more than 100%.

Bahamian tourism coffers are overflowing.

"I want once again to express the thanks and appreciation of my government and of the Bahamian people for the tremendous contribution which Sun International has made toward restoring the Bahamas to the ranks of premier warm-weather vacation destinations," Ingraham said. "This investment (in Atlantis) has fueled the single biggest development in Bahamian tourism ..."

Kerzner himself insists that his past links to apartheid have not affected his dealings in the Bahamas, a country where 85% of the population is of African descent.

"We have a great relationship, not only with the government, but with the community," he says.

Such heated issues are far, far away at the Ocean Club, a radical departure from Kerzner's more lively theme resorts. It's "elegant and understated," as the expensive brochures promise, and guests are greeted at the door with moist towels and glasses of champagne.

Nowhere is Kerzner's more flamboyant side evident in the design, except perhaps on the golf course. The 18-hole course is almost completely devoid of trees, which gives it a startlingly barren look on such a lush, tropical isle.

"Most of the trees were killed, eliminated, I don't know what word to use," says a slightly perplexed Tom Weiskopf, who designed the course. "That was Sol's idea. You couldn't see the ocean with all the trees."

"I like the colour of the water," Kerzner explains.

As for the future, Atlantis will almost certainly expand outward -whether one considers it a crass exercise in capitalist excess or simply a popular destination for tourists attracted to "big" in lieu of historical or cultural accuracy.

Kerzner has some 80 acres (32 hectares) of undeveloped, prime, waterfront property left on the island that he can let his imagination run wild with.

"There's a real possibility we could be expanding Atlantis," he says. "We have some of the greatest beaches in the world here doing absolutely nothing."