Sonu Shivdasani, the founder, chairman and CEO of Soneva in the Maldives, and one of the world’s leading lights in sustainability, sometimes jokes that he was an ‘accidental hotelier’. Of Indian parentage, he was mostly educated in England, first at Eton, then Oxford University. It was while there, he met his Swedish-born wife, Eva. While holidaying in The Maldives, they fell in love with it.
‘Eva and I are quite spiritual people, Sonu tells NOW ‘And we felt that in a past life, we’d lived there together before.’
In 1991, they secured a far-flung, abandoned island in the Baa Atoll (now a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve), opened Soneva (a combination of Sonu and Eva) Fushi, in 1995, the first luxury and environmentally friendly resort in the country – when climate change was barely a murmur, and sustainability was an unfamiliar concept. For its 20th anniversary in 2015, Soneva Fushi won the World Travel & Tourism Council’s sustainability award (for the second time), making it a benchmark for the hospitality industry worldwide.
Matching their design to fit the fragile natural environment, Soneva also won awards for its design and aesthetic – without using tropical hardwoods (and their corresponding trail of corruption) to create a beautiful environment. Using sustainable building blocks, its ‘sleek Asian design’ features acacia (instead of teak) furniture, sand blasted pine decking, and swathes of bamboo for internal cladding. New Maldives property, Soneva Jani, which means ‘wisdom’ in Sanskrit, with innovative roofing material made out of recycled egg cartons, is a blueprint for sustainable resorts worldwide.
‘Being a sustainable business is very much an evolution,’ says Sonu. ‘It’s a bit like peeling an onion, as every year, ideas evolve.’
Reducing environmental impact is central to Soneva’s philosophy, from integrated waste management (80% of waste is recycled on the island) – eco-centro even recycles waste coconuts into cold-pressed coconut oil – to using local ingredients to avoid imports, bottling water on site, employing a marine biologist and the latest innovation, a zero waste vegan restaurant, based on raw food concepts. Soneva introduced solar power to the Maldives in 1988 (halving the cost of fossil fuel), and now aims to operate on renewable energy by 2047.
The resorts’ guiding principle is to create innovative and enlightening SLOW LIFE (Sustainable-Local-Organic-Wellness Learning-Inspiring-Fun-Experiences) for guests – combining luxury, wellness and sustainability; its core philosophy is ‘intelligent luxury’ – that which is new, true and rare.
‘We believe luxury is about eating a freshly picked salad, grown in our organic garden al fresco with a beautiful view, walking barefoot with sand between your toes (‘no news, no shoes’ policy) or watching a movie under the stars.’ Says Sonu. ‘Experiences change lives, and often luxury is more sustainable, healthy options.’
‘The first letter of Slow stands for sustainable and the first letter of Life, for local, explains Sonu. ‘Some 5% of Soneva’s revenues – around $250,000 a year – goes to social and environmental projects through our NGO, The Soneva Foundation (set up in 2010). We also employ most staff from nearby, as we believe that people want to meet people from the local community when they travel.’
The Maldivian word for beach translates as ‘rubbish collector’, and many people can’t swim. The Soneva Foundation has supported a Learn to Swim programme for local children, to influence the children’s relationship with the sea. And, when plastic bottles from a neighbouring island washed up on Soneva’s shore, they bought them a bottling plant, which will become a community enterprise and future source of income generation.
‘Companies must have a purpose beyond making money to be successful in the 21st century,’ says Sonu. ‘Being passionate about what we’re doing, and being true to our life’s purpose, rings true and engages employees. That’s essential for magical service in travel and tourism.’
He believes that in the hotel business, small positive changes that don’t impact negatively on either profitability or guests’ experience, can generate considerable funds for good causes. In 2008, Soneva added a mandatory 2% carbon levy to guests’ bills, to off-set their travel emissions. It has provided funds for a reforestation project in Thailand (mitigating around 400,000 tons of CO2), wind power generators in South India and low carbon cooking stoves in Myanmar saving both resources (firewood) and lives through lung disease, and reducing CO2 emissions by 60%.
‘We’ve saved 18% on water revenues by bottling our own water, and given over 600,000 people in other countries access to clean water (through our partnership with Whole World Water),’ says Sonu. ‘But it’s not just about saving water. Sustainability has enhanced our guest experience, with water presented in a nice jug with a ceramic top, and a water menu – featuring healing crystals.’
An initiative that has a wider impact is the SLOW LIFE Symposium, bring together world-leading environmental thinkers. ‘Environmental refugees are a real threat in our world today,’ says Sonu. ‘Governments can create the context, but businesses can affect the change.’