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Kenya tourism mogul Kuldip Sondhi dies at 97

By Philip Mwakio | Apr 12th 2021 | 4 min read
By Philip Mwakio | April 12th 2021


The late Kuldip Sondhi was the owner of Reef Hotel in Mombasa, Reef in Kwale and Pemba Hotels. [Courtesy]

Mr Kuldip Sondhi, 97, the doyen of Kenyan tourism industry is dead.

His son, Ranjit Sondhi, said that his late father will be cremated on Wednesday in Mombasa.

"He died this morning at Reef Hotel facing the gardens he so loved with the Indian Ocean breeze over his body," Ranjit said. 

Sondhi has seen the Kenyan tourism sector evolve from the flourishing good olden days to the current sorry state. He was the owner of Reef Hotel in Mombasa, Reef in Kwale and Pemba Hotels.

His son said the old man was staying at Reef Hotel where he breathed his last. It was not immediately clear what he succumbed to.    

Born in the former Indian city of Lahore (now Pakistan), Sondhi rose to be a successful hotelier running three iconic hotels in Mombasa, Shimoni in Kwale and Pemba Island in Tanzania.

In his condolences message, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism Najib Balala said Sondhi was his mentor, adding that “it is a sad day for me and I will miss him”.

The CS who has worked closely with Sondhi over the years said the late hotelier was vocal but objective.

"His input in tourism and arts cannot be forgotten. He was among very few people we can describe as a father of culture and hospitality in Coast," said Mvita MP Abdulswamad Nasir.

Kenya Tourism Federation (KTF) chairman Mr Mohamed Hersi described Sondhi as a man who built the Reef Group of Hotels from scratch and was a firm believer in destination Kenya.

''He was an accomplished play writer and a poet with many plays to his name that went on to win several awards,'' Hersi said. 

Dr Sam Ikwaye, Executive officer of the Kenya Association of Hotelkeepers and Caterers (KAHC) Coast branch said that Sondhi always stood for the good of the industry.

"Even in old age, he continued to work on his business and with honesty and bravery. He is among few persons who have done so much for fellow investors in the industry," Ikwaye said. 

After his high school education in India, Sondhi moved to the US in 1942 for further studies in Aeronautical Engineering (specializing in gas turbines). 

"Upon my graduation, I got a job at the Bristol Aeroplane Company in the UK as a design engineer," Sondhi told The Standard in an interview two years ago.

As fate would have it, after a two-year stint in the UK, Sondhi quit his job and relocated to Kenya where his parents had set up a business.

In 1950, Sondhi received a call from the then India Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who wanted him to head the  jet propulsion industry.

“He invited me to head Jet Industry in Bangalore but the offer was not to my liking,’’ Sondhi said during the interview then.

In 1951, Sondhi returned to Mombasa to join his parents, where he would run a number of family businesses. By then, Sondhi had married the flame of his life, Aase (now deceased) with whom they had two children, Ranjit (son) and daughter Sonita, who lives in the UK.

In 1971, he founded the Reef Hotels Limited.

“I had chosen a completely different path - the hospitality industry - where I invested all my savings,’’ he said adding that he opened Reef Hotel for business in 1972. 

Sondhi was instrumental in chairing the then Mombasa and Coast Tourist Association (MCTA) - now Kenya Coast Tourist Association after being an active member.

He was to chair the tourism lobby group from 2001 to 2009, and is currently chairman of the Trustee Committee.

In the year 2002, Sondhi was a nominated councillor at the Mombasa Municipal Council, where he served for a full term and chaired the committee on environment.

He held other reputable public office positions like such as a  trustee of the Little Theatre Club and is also a trustee of the Sondhi Charitable Trust (Education).

The businessman was an avid play writer and has penned 12 short stories and 17 plays, all of which have been published in several anthologies. Some of his plays have aired and won accolades with the British Broadcasting Corporation.

They included Tides, Parlour Games, Beach Access, Room Service and Parlour Storm.

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