Sonu Shivdasani on the importance of conscious luxury and sustainable travel
He is the force behind Soneva Resorts
Travel and flying are often highlighted as prime examples of human behaviour that contributes to global warming, and that needs to change with immediate effect if we are to handover to the next generation a world similar to what we have been able to experience and love in our own lifetimes.
Whilst air travel will account for a bulk of an individual’s own ecological footprint, it today still accounts for about 2% of greenhouse gases. The damage it causes pales when one considers the contribution to global warming of agriculture, especially the meat industry, where the numbers are 10 to 20 times that of air travel.
Founder and CEO of Soneva Sonu Shivdasani with his wife Eva
In spite of the above, I remain a strong advocate of the overall positive impact of travel & tourism and the key role it plays in conservation. Vast tracts of South and East Africa would now be farmland if it were not for the conservation efforts of the many lodges and camps whose tourists indirectly fund these efforts. A few years ago, President Bongo of Gabon transferred 11 million hectares of land from timber concessions and mining concessions to a national park with a view to attracting tourists.
Closer to home, the government of the Maldives banned the fishing of both sharks and turtles. Part of the Maldives – Baa Atoll, where one of our resorts is located – has become a UNESCO Biosphere. The catalyst for these actions was the calculation that a shark or turtle swimming happily in the ocean was considerably more valuable alive than dead.
Let me now share with you our own experiences at Soneva which I hope will reinforce the case for travel & tourism as an overall source of good.
When my wife Eva and I opened our first resort in 1995 we held a firm belief that a company must have a clear purpose beyond just making money. We were also convinced that a successful business is the one that combines apparent contrasts and makes these opposites compatible. When this is achieved and it works, it creates an experience that is both unique and accepted, that one immediately develops a very strong level of loyalty from the guest.
The hideaway celebrates nature at its best
While we wanted to create a hideaway that would satisfy our desires for a dream destination for those who liked to travel in luxurious style, we also had this overwhelming desire to protect the environment. The end result was born out of the philosophy of simple sophistication and returning luxuriously to nature, whilst also shouldering the responsibility of being custodians of the beautiful places we operate in.
Today, two decades later we’d like to think that our guiding principle of creating innovative and enlightening SLOW LIFE for our guests, which is our moral as well as our operating compass, has also provided a blueprint for the future of the hospitality industry.
One can indulge in activities like a dolphin cruise in Maldives
Our vehicle for delivering the SLOW LIFE is our core philosophy of “Intelligent Luxury”. It is about combining the traditional opposites of sustainability and wellness with luxury. We believe these things actually complement each other. At the heart of the matter is what true luxury means for our guests today. The definition of luxury is something that is a rarity, but the wealthy of today come from a different context to the wealthy of the past when some of the more traditional luxuries were established. In today’s society, luxury translates into peace, time and space. It is about the sand between the toes and dinner under the canopy of a billion stars, about reconnecting with oneself and the natural environment. For guests who live in a cramped and polluted concrete jungle, true luxury is to eat a freshly picked salad, grown in our organic garden while breathing fresh air and enjoying a beautiful view.
This focus has led to levels of guest loyalty and repeat business that far surpass industry norms, and this tells us unequivocally that the values of a company matter to those who consume its products. This is rare in the modern world but Soneva distinguishes itself because combined with the space, privacy and comfort of our villas and rooms, and the intuitive service provided by our Hosts, we have also demonstrated how sustainable materials can have a great aesthetic. Being able to bring out the beauty of nature has set us apart from the competition.
Beachside dining at Soneva Fushi
Being sustainable is also part of our DNA and we are always striving to limit the negative environmental impact of our activities – something which is both difficult as well as critical for a company which operates resorts in remote places of pristine natural beauty.
We may sometimes fall short of our own high standards, but we are very clear about our responsibilities as custodians of the communities we operate in. This responsibility to one’s community is somewhat complicated for a company such as ours whose guests’ jet in from all over the globe. As a result, our social and environmental responsibilities are as much global as they are local. We, therefore, set up the Soneva Foundation to focus on change at a level far beyond the direct communities in which our resorts operate and to recognize our obligations to society in general.
In 2008, I noticed a huge number of plastic water bottles washed up on our beaches at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives. We decided not to point fingers at those who were allowing their water bottles to spoil our oceans while still serving bottled water in our resort and therefore still part of the problem. So, we took the decision to stop offering branded bottle water, and instead serve water filtered, mineralised, alkalised, and bottled on site in reusable glass bottles. Half the revenues from our water sales go to the Soneva Foundation to fund the work of charities such as Water Charity and Thirst Aid.
The beautiful villas at the hotel
In the same year, we took the simple step of adding a mandatory 2% Carbon Levy to our guests’ bills, to off-set their travel emissions. It was a small change, and relatively small charge, which we found our guests more than happy to accept. And the rewards have been great. In four years we have raised approximately USD 5 million, which the Soneva Foundation has used to fund a reforestation programme in northern Thailand. Through this, we have planted around half a million trees, mitigating around 400,000 tons of CO 2. Additionally, funds have financed wind power generators in South India, and even a commitment to 150,000 low carbon cooking stoves in Myanmar and Darfur.
The Soneva Foundation also created our previous SLOW LIFE Symposia, which we organized four times, which convenes some of the world’s greatest minds across science, business, philanthropy and policy. Described by one of our participants as a ‘laboratory of intent’, the event provides these leaders with the time, space and facility to address the worst challenges threatening our incredible natural environment, and create tangible, collaborative solutions.
Sustainable bamboo straws at Soneva Fushi
And it has delivered real results, for example, in 2012 the Whole World Water (WWW) initiative was conceived and co-founded by Symposium attendees, Karena Albers and Jenifer Willig, in partnership with the Soneva Foundation. The premise was simple: how can we scale the Soneva model of filtering and bottling water locally instead of importing bottled water and using part of the revenues to fund clean water initiatives? The model devised not only eliminates plastic waste but also cuts out unnecessary transportation miles. Today WWW extends this concept out to the travel and tourism industry, with 10% of sales revenues invested in clean and safe drinking water initiatives around the world. The scale of ambition for WWW is dizzying – we estimate that if the entire travel and tourism industry united around this single issue, we could raise $1 billion annually. While this target is still some way off, last year WWW made its first investments in clean water projects in Cambodia, Uganda and India.
It is remarkable that many children in our island nation, The Maldives, do not swim. A fear of the water is compounded by a nationwide waste problem that sees local island beaches used as a dumping ground for household waste. Following the 2013 Symposium, Soneva Fushi establisheda “Learn To Swim” programme with our neighbouring island Eydhafushi. By teaching children to swim, we hope that they will learn to love the ocean, and when they love it, they will protect it. We have now scaled this programme to offer intensive swimming programmes across the Atoll, partnering with other resorts, local and national NGOs, environmental awareness groups and government ministries. Supported by filmmaker and National Geographic adventurer Jon Bowermaster, who made a documentary film of the swimming programme, we aim to develop a model of environmental inspiration and education that can be applied around the world.
Ample greens at Soneva Fushi
In February 2020, we also launched our Namoona Baa initiative with the unveiling of the Eco- Centro complex on the island of Maalhos, Maldives. Namoona Baa sees the islands of Maalhos, Dharavandhoo, and Kihaadhoo in the Baa Atoll pledging to end the open burning of island waste, in a radical shift towards eco-friendly waste management. The pledge was made by the Presidents of Maalhos, Dharavandhoo, and Kihaadhoo island councils, during a workshop on waste held at Soneva Fushi on January 5-8, 2019.
To end the practice of the open burning of waste, which poses a health and environmental hazard and damages tourism, each island will create an Eco-Centro waste-to-wealth centre that will sort, recycle and reuse island waste. The Eco-Centro model was pioneered at Soneva Fushi, which is located close to Maalhos. At the resort, food and organic waste, metals, and bottles are chipped, ground down or composted, and turned into things of economic value, such as concrete building blocks and fertilizer. Plastic waste is either recycled or used to create useful new objects.
Soneva has pledged funds from its Soneva Save our Seas programme to support the creation of the Eco-Centros on Maalhos, Dharavandhoo, and Kihaadhoo. During the January workshop, the island council presidents helped forge a new partnership between their islands, Soneva Fushi, and Common Seas, an international NGO dedicated to reducing marine plastic pollution.
The new partnership – part of the international Clean Blue Alliance which supports islands to prevent plastic waste leaking into the ocean – sets a course for Baa Atoll, and eventually the Maldives, to become a global leader in halting ocean plastic pollution.
As part of the inauguration of the Maalhos Eco-Centro, a friendly cricket match took place on the island. Maldivian Parliament Speaker, President Mohamed Nasheed, played a game of cricket alongside former Indian international cricketer Harbhajan Singh, and a number of Maldivian cabinet ministers and officials. The match helped showcase a new recreational area created on the island, which had previously been the site of a rubbish dump. The area has since been transformed into a recreational area under the Namoona Baa initiative.
Dealing with waste, particularly plastic, is a major issue for every island community in the Maldives. Plastic bottles and bags tend to litter streets, island jungles and beaches, while waste is routinely burned in toxic, open bonfires. Human health and guesthouse tourism suffer as a direct result of this practice.
Under the Namoona Baa Initiative, the Maalhos model will be expanded to neighbouring Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo, with Eco-Centro waste-to-wealth centres established on both islands later this year. With government support, it is hoped that the model can be rolled out across the Baa Atoll, and eventually the whole of the Maldives.