Eva and Sonu Shivdasani founded SONEVA in 1995 on shared passions and an intensely personal vision of a locally crafted villa and environmentally responsible lifestyle. Pioneering a trend for back-to-nature luxury holidays, they created a thriving community working hand in hand with the environment to craft beautiful, beyond bespoke experiences where discovery is a way of life.
Soneva takes their environmental and social responsibilities very seriously and are always prepared to take the initiative to protect the environment, respect the local culture and fragile host eco system which is to remain undisturbed by the opening of any new resort. Each Soneva resort uses only natural and sustainable building materials, plastic is banned and as much produce as possible is grown or caught locally to support the group’s constant drive to lower its carbon footprint. We asked Sonu for his thoughts on sustainability in the travel industry as it stands today.
Do travellers care about sustainability?
I would say its 50:50. Our loyal Soneva Enthusiasts certainly do. They are very impressed by their experience with us; whether it’s the fact that we have banned branded water, that we are still the only hotel group to have a mandatory environmental levy that has raised US$ 7 million for the Soneva Foundation’s Carbon offsetting projects, the fact that we recycle 85% of our waste and some of the innovative things we do there, the fact that so much of the ingredients that they eat are grown on the island or sourced locally, our responsible food and no-no list etc etc. That said in certain new markets people still think to themselves, “Well, if it’s sustainable it cannot be luxurious”.
This is why we play down our Slowlife Core Purpose to the customer and instead focus on our brand proposition of, “Inspiring a Lifetime of Rare Experiences”.
What in your opinion is the most pressing sustainability issue facing the travel industry today?
Global warming is certainly a big environmental issue. My big concern is that we have touched the danger zone for 4 out of the 10 planetary boundaries. If you are not familiar with the planetary boundaries, I highly recommend a TED talk by Johan Rockstrom from the Stockholm Resilience Centre where he explains this.
The most irritating greenwashing in hotels that you come across?
I have been fortunate enough to be a judge on a few Luxury Sustainability panels.
On one of these panels, two hotels were actually short listed in the top 10 finalist. I got in touch with both hotels and I was surprised to learn that both hotels served branded bottle water and amenities in small plastic bottles. I was quite surprised that they entered a competition on Sustainability when they were not addressing such basics.
Is the hotel industry serious and transparent about sustainability?
I have seen a huge growth within the eco-tourism luxury segment in the past few years, not only within the Maldives but also globally. I think this is because owners and Directors 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. Our earth’s resources are finite and we all need to be better guardians to protect the world we live in.
As a leader in sustainability, how are you harnessing the human power and creativity of your team to come up with solutions?
At Soneva, we have employees and job descriptions that are not typical of a hotel, whether it is the Resident Astronomer, our Marine Biologist, our Botanist, our Waste to Wealth Manager or our Mycologist (a Mycologist is an expert at growing mushrooms).
There is a crisis of trust worldwide and public confidence in business, government and media ‘to do the right thing’ continues to drop. Is rigorous sustainability certification with independent audits important for accountability to regain consumer trust?
There are many Travel Associations around Sustainability and quite a few certifications. One comprehensive industry wide certification process with clear independent audits would work very well in creating consumer trust.
What legacy would you like to leave behind from your leadership?
With our Core Purpose of engaging an imaginative Slow Life it has always been our objective to offer our guests luxuries whilst minimizing our impact on the planet and enhancing the health of our guests.
We have always tried to push new boundaries of Sustainability and Travel and Tourism.
Some of these initiatives have caught on, and have become main stream, others have not. It would give me great pleasure if in a few years’ time when I retire, the industry at large has for example banned branded water in their hotels and only serve water bottled on site, if the industry at large were to use soaps, shampoos, shower gels etc from refillable ceramic containers rather than from small plastic bottles that generate huge
waste, and if the hotel industry at large were to measure all 3 scopes of carbon including scope 3 and were to introduce a mandatory carbon levy which would generate capital to offset their impact and improve the quality of life of those that live in communities beyond where we operate.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I knew that I would be an entrepreneur but I did not realize that it would be in the Hospitality Industry.
What do you do in your daily life and when you are travelling in the name of sustainability?
Most of the time, Eva and I are at Soneva Fushi or one of our other resorts, Soneva Kiri or Soneva Jani, so we are fully immersed in the sustainable lifestyle we promote at our resorts. Our daily commute is on bicycle, and much of what we eat is either grown on the island, or sourced from local fishermen.
Whenever a train is an option over a plane, I prefer taking it. Apart from being the more sustainable option it is very often the more comfortable one.
Air travel isn’t terribly sustainable but with the Soneva Foundation we have ensured that all the carbon as a result of our being is offset.
Favorite sustainable hotel or other places to stay and why?
My wife Eva and I love being in the Maldives and when we are not there we like to experience the opposite as such as visiting a European Capital like Florence, Barcelona etc or going skiing. I love skiing in Zermatt it’s such a charming village where petrol vehicles are banned and there are only battery-operated taxis, and horse and carriage. In terms of other tropical resorts, Eva and I love North Island in the Seychelles.