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Surrounded by wretched poverty, the stupendously lavish Lost City fantasy resort in the gambling center of Sun City is opening in a blaze of publicity.

Set in the parched African bush northwest of Johannesburg, the Lost City is a 42-acre playland of man-made rivers and rain forests, marble interiors, life-size animal carvings, and a 328-room hotel designed in the style of an ancient, unknown civilization with a taste for the ornate.Lost City's controversial creator, Sol Kerzner, has spared no expense in launching his $267 million project, from the domed ceilings to the live crocodiles in the golf course's water trap.

To help kick off the resort, he lured the Miss World contest to Africa for the first time. It's also the first time that the contest has been held in a country that no one recognizes - the black homeland of Bophuthatswana.

The launch started Tuesday night with a concert by French entertainer Jean Michel Jarre. A Million Dollar Golf Tournament starts Thursday with some of golf's biggest names and the largest first prize on the tour - $1 million.

Ivana Trump, ex-wife of Donald Trump, and Brigette Nielsen, ex-wife of Sylvester Stallone, have been brought to add an element of celebrity.

If nothing seems quite real in the run-up to the Dec. 12 Miss World pageant, that's because it's the way organizers like it.

"It's a fantasy title, and this is a fantasy - a wonderful place," said Julia Morley, managing director of the Miss World Company, as the 84 contestants frolicked in the computer-controlled waves lapping along the shores of a man-made, white sand beach carved out of the bush.

Neither Kerzner nor Miss World organizers are apologizing for what critics say is an ostentatious display just up the highway from the abysmal poverty and political strife of Bophuthatswana.

Bophuthatswana is one of 10 tribally based homelands, which have been widely criticized as corrupt, authoritarian creations of the white South African government and its apartheid policies.

South Africa and Bophuthatswana consider the homeland an independent state, but no other nation recognizes it, and Bophuthatswana is not allowed to enter the Miss World Pageant. South Africa was only readmitted last year after being barred for 20 years.

Kerzner counters his critics by saying that construction of The Lost City employed some 5,000 people and that the resort will pump millions of dollars into Bophuthatswana.

By building in Bophuthatswana, Kerzner has avoided South Africa's gambling ban while making millions from wealthy whites who drive two hours from Johannesburg, past miles of black squatter camps.

Since Sun City's birth in 1979, neither it nor Kerzner has been far from controversy.

Artists such as Frank Sinatra and Rod Stewart who played Sun City were accused of breaking cultural boycotts imposed against South Africa to protest apartheid.

In 1989, the flamboyant, thrice-married Kerzner admitted he had bribed the leader of Transkei, another nominally independent black homeland, to guarantee his company's exclusive casino rights there.

South Africa's biggest labor group, the Congress of South African Trade Unions, is threatening a boycott of Kerzner's hotels and the Miss World Pageant. The black-dominated federation accuses Sun International of planning to lay off nearly 4,000 workers from several hotels.

Profits from Miss World go to charity, and this year's main beneficiary is Operation Hunger, a private South African organization that cares for the poor.