For a quarter of a century, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani have pioneered the connection between luxury and sustainability, and the profoundly healing barefoot luxury at Soneva, an amalgam of their names and founded on shared passions to create a thriving community that work hand in hand with the environment to craft beautiful, bespoke and rare experiences where discovery is a way of life.
In 2021, Soneva celebrated its 25th anniversary. From their very first visit to Kunfunadhoo Island to their latest projects engaging local communities, explore the images, memories and milestone moments specially curated by Eva Malmström Shivdasani, Soneva’s Creative Director. View HERE.
What purpose drove you to create Soneva?
Eva: In the end of the 70s, I travelled to the Maldives, a place which no one had heard about, not even the mother of Sonu, who I met in 1986 and she is Indian from just across the water. The interesting thing is that Lachadives is the continuation of the Maldives and used to belong to Maldives a long, long time ago. They are now Indian, but many still speak Divehi, the local Maldivian language, and many families have relatives across the strait.
I went there for a photo shoot and fell in love with the place. At the time there were very few hotels and not more than shacks on the beach with earth floors and salty water for washing everything, which made the sheets perennially wet, as salt water on fabric will not dry properly. We were given small bags of shampoo instead of soaps, as soaps in salty water will not lather.
I had never seen a place so beautiful before, and I decided that if I ever come back, it would only be with someone I was very much in love with. In 1987, I brought Sonu there and he had the same feeling as I about the place, even though it was still very basic and with awful food. We continued to go back and found a cute little place on a mini island, with eight bungalows, no earth on the floor, and with nice food, as it was Italian 😊. We kept going back, and one day decided that it would be nice to build a small Villa for us, with a few small bungalows for friends. But we were told that would not be possible and that we needed to build a resort and that we needed it to be with masses of rooms.
It was quite hard to get one of the resorts that the government was auctioning, and very few were auctioned at the time, so we were not lucky. Then my sister went for holiday to Maldives and got to know a couple. The wife was Swedish and her husband Maldivian, and he told my sister there was an island in the Baa atoll that nobody wanted, as it was too far and very difficult to get to. Leased by a Maldivian person, he could give it to whoever he wanted and there were no restrictions about how many, or how few villas one could build.
On the island the size of Soneva Fushi, the government would have insisted to build at least 350 rooms! It would have been impossible to keep all the wonderful vegetation!
So, this was the beginning of Soneva. I discovered about 30 years ago that the turtles were being hunted close to extinction in the Maldives and I immediately contacted an NGO / Ecocare who had started trying to stop this. I immediately started to do everything I could to stop the hunting of the turtles (too long here to tell), but after a lot of effort and bugging every Minister I met, the law of a 10-year ban was passed in the Maldives, and when it was up, no one in their right mind was hunting turtles anymore. After that, I did what I could to stop the shark finning. I still leave the brochures against hunting turtles and sharks in every villa in our Maldivian resorts to make sure that our guests will not buy any turtle or shark items ever, anywhere in the world.
What purpose drives Soneva (beyond making money)?
Sonu: Our Core Purpose at Soneva is imaginative and enlightening Slow Life. In essence, we are offering our guests luxuries, whilst minimizing our impact on the environment, and at the same time, enhancing our guests’ health. I have spent my life working in the hotel industry and have devoted my career to building what is now a network of luxury resorts. I do not believe that this puts me at odds with conservation; but I am the first to say that the hotel and tourism sectors should admit where they have failed and take steps to bring about change.
There can be no doubt that we, as an industry, consume far more than our fair share of resources. But I believe that all companies, hotel businesses included, must have a purpose beyond profit. They must play a greater role in the world beyond just enriching their shareholders. I do not believe that this has to run counter to a successful business model, in fact, it can be central to it. We can find opportunities to make small positive changes that do not impact negatively on our profitability or our guests’ perception of our products, yet which can generate considerable good for both the environment and society. In fact, they can often enhance our guests’ experience.
Among everything you have done at Soneva, what is your most inspiring sustainability action?
Eva: Thanks to my parents and our Swedish heritage, I was always brought up thinking of the planet. Our Hosts did not understand my philosophy at first, and thought I was mad when I told them that they couldn’t even cut a branch without showing me first. When Soneva Fushi launched back in 1995, they gave me the nickname “The Conscience”! I insisted on only using sustainable wood for the construction of the resort and all of the furniture in the villas and dining destinations. I also would not let anyone cut down any trees, so instead we planned the buildings around them. Twenty-seven years later, we still ensure that everything we build is both sustainable and ethical.
I am also very proud that we were one of the first hospitality groups to ban plastic drinking straws back in 1998, then we banned imported bottled water across our resorts in 2008, instead filtering, mineralising and bottling our own water in reusable glass.
Sonu: Both Eva and I consider ourselves guardians, not owners of these precious environments that we feel privileged to look after during our lifetimes. We have pledged to protect the biodiversity and habitats on and around our resorts.
To do so we have always used nature as an inspiration for our innovation and we have always endeavoured to be a sustainable pioneer in the hospitality industry. Our commitment is to exist in harmony with our local, natural environment whether that by on the land by Reducing, Recycling and Inspiring:
Reduce, a radical reduction in the volume of plastic arriving on the islands. Soneva assisted the council of Maalhos to establish a water bottling plant that desalinates and mineralises sea water before bottling it in reusable glass bottles, using the same system as the water served to guests at Soneva resorts.
Recycling and responsible disposal of waste forms the second strand of the programme. Maalhos was the first island to open a Soneva-funded Eco Centro with upgraded machinery that include a compactor, a woodchipper and a glass crusher. It also became the first island in the Maldives to end the open burning of waste in February 2020. Later the same year, Soneva helped both the Dhaaravandhoo and Kihaadhoo island communities to follow suit.
The third component is to Inspire a love of the ocean and the local environment. The belief is that through water sports, education, and community outreach activities, that children will lose their fear of the ocean and learn to love it. If they love it, they are more likely to protect it.
Another initiative that I am very proud of is our Glasscycle studio which takes “Waste to Wealth” to a completely new level. We opened the arts and glass studio at Soneva Fushi back in 2015, it is where guests can watch world-renowned artists create objects of art and learn the art of glass blowing.
The facility uses only waste glass materials, which is upcycled from waste glass used at Soneva resorts and other resorts in the Maldives. It is estimated that more than five tonnes of glass waste is produced by resorts in the Baa Atoll alone, every month.
The Soneva solution to glass recycling is to take on the entire process ourselves. The talented team at our art and glass studio start by crushing the glass and melting it in our furnace. They then use a variety of methods, such as blowing, casting and slumping to create many extraordinary items.
The idea behind this project is to turn the glass into something that is much more beautiful and valuable than it was in its previous state. It was something that both Eva and I had wanted to do for many years, so we are very excited that the project came to fruition. We believe that small tweaks to our business model can make a big difference. For instance, we see ‘waste’ as an asset rather than a liability. We are very proud that around 90 percent of our waste at Soneva Fushi is reused.
We also extend this to the beautiful oceans that surround our islands which is also a priority for us. Protecting our marine realm is a continuous and sustained effort by our resorts, and each have their own dedicated Marine Biologist and Marine Teams, whose diverse role includes monitoring our habitats and biodiversity, conserving marine species such as the rare turtles that nest on our islands, and helping our guests discover more about the remarkable marine life around our islands.
The April 2022 UN Climate Report by the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) warned that it is inevitable that we will reach 1.5°C (34.7°F) this decade, when destruction in nature may be irreversible. How is climate change impacting the Maldives today?
Sonu: Yes, the situation is depressing, and it does seem that 1.5°C (34.7°F) is inevitable. The risk as is well documented. If we go above 2°C (35.6°F), then feedback loops will lead to even further rises in temperature for at least a couple of hundred years irrespective of whether we completely eliminate our carbon generation as human beings. So far, the Maldives has fared very well as we have plenty of coral, which unfortunately is dying, but the fish life around are healthy, and the parrot fish and other fish are producing huge amounts of sand to compensate for any slight rises in sea levels.
One can argue that the Maldives, because the islands are surrounded with live coral, will fare a much better chance than other parts of the world if sea levels rise slowly. For, coral creates a natural barrier against the sea.
However, the acidification of the ocean and other stresses is causing the coral population to decline. This is the reason why we have embarked on an ambitious project to reverse the decline of coral, initially at our resorts, and then hopefully, in other parts of the Maldives. We are investing in various technologies to propagate and develop coral that is more resilient and can grow faster. We do not have much time on our hands given that the prediction is that by 2030, 90% of the coral that remains in the sea will have died. However, we are trying very hard.
Tourism is an important source of income for the Maldives and Thailand … what is being done to build resilience for extreme climate emergencies, for rising seas, and for destruction in nature that may be irreversible? How are you preparing for this at Soneva?
Sonu: Sustainability has run through the heart of Soneva since we built Soneva Fushi back in 1995. We already re-use or recycle 90 percent of our waste at our resorts and we have been fully carbon neutral for both direct and indirect emissions since 2012. Regeneration is a major focal point of Soneva’s approach to sustainability: each Soneva resort features an Eco Centro Waste-to-Wealth Centre and lush organic gardens, irrigated by grey water and nurtured by compost from the resort kitchens.
As part of our ban on plastic water bottles all of our water is bottled on site in re-usable glass. Today, all the revenues from our water sales go to the Soneva Foundation to fund the work of charities such as Water Charity and Thirst Aid.
In January 2019, we launched Soneva Namoona, our flagship project that reimagines waste management in the Maldives. Namoona means ‘exemplary’ in Dhivehi, the language of the Maldives, which is our aim for this partnership with our local islands.
In a nation with few municipal waste facilities and huge stress on the limited available land, the sea has traditionally been a dumping ground for local Maldivian islands, which was less problematic when most of the waste was organic. For today’s generation, that waste is plastic bottles, plastic packaging, and aluminium cans.
Our conservation efforts also extend to below the sea and one of the challenges we have in the Maldives is keeping our coral alive hence I am very excited about the new coral propagation project that we are working on in partnership with Swiss organisation Coralive.org The project will house the Maldives’ largest coral nursery, with ambitious plans to harvest 50,000 coral fragments every year to restore and renew our reef systems.
I cannot comment on other hoteliers. Whilst as an organization, we have been carbon neutral since 2012, the net zero goal still alludes us. The good news is that at least our resorts in the Maldives are in a location where solar is substantially cheaper. We have now managed to secure financing to extend our solar facility at Soneva Fushi, and to add 3 megawatts of solar at Soneva Jani. Once this is installed (within 12 months I hope), 60% of our energy will be from renewable energy that we actually generate on-site. Our third resort which opens in October should largely be carbon neural.
2021 Surveys revealed that over 80% of Travellers want to travel sustainably and ‘Sustainability is Top of Mind’. Are hotel owners and operators in the Maldives and around the world finally getting serious about sustainability with accountability and transparency, and on the road to Net Zero or better – Climate Positive – this decade?
Sonu: I firmly believe that luxury, including travel, and sustainability can go hand in hand. At Soneva sustainability runs through our core, and we always strive to limit the negative environmental impact of our activities – which, while difficult, is critical for a company which operates resorts in remote places of pristine natural beauty.
Today, all Soneva resorts are 100% carbon neutral as a result of the introduction of a 2% environmental levy on all guest stays back in 2008.
Overall, I remain a strong advocate of the overall positive impact of travel and tourism and the key role it plays in conservation. I also believe that hoteliers and owners must be a positive force for change – there are many examples where conservation has flourished thanks to tourism. 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. 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.
Looking to the future, for this industry to survive in a post-COVID era, I believe it will be vital for travel and tourism to have a net positive contribution to conservation, the environment as well as the community and I have seen a huge growth within the eco-tourism luxury segment in the past few years.
I think this is because owners and tourism operators now understand that it makes a lot of business sense to be more focused on sustainability, as the demand for environmentally and socially responsible travel is increasing. It also makes sense financially if you do it in the right way. Having said that, I do think that sustainability is here to stay and won’t disappear like other trends sometimes do.
Message from It Must Be NOW
The newly published travel book by teNeues is authored by the founder of It Must Be Now – Alexa Poortier. This must be Paradise … CONSCIOUS TRAVEL INSPIRATIONS feature Soneva Resorts in the Maldives and Thailand. Retreat to imaginative and enlightening Slow Life and be inspired.