Soneva founder says hospitality operators need to think of the environmental and social impact of their work beyond Covid-19.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

01 LUSH FOODS Soneva Fushi’s organic garden ensures guests consume fresh crisp vegetables for a healthy diet. 

Good fortune has its roots in disaster. This saying by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu has been a guiding light during crises he has faced, says Sonu Shivdasani, founder and CEO of luxury resort brand Soneva. Amid the crisis the hospitality industry is mired in due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this quote is certainly germane.

“This period is very difficult, but the most important thing is that we do not lose our values and our humanity,” says Shivdasani, who has not strayed from his commitment to environmental and social responsibilities since opening Soneva Fushi in the Maldives in 1995.

The brand – which also includes Soneva Jani in the Maldives and Soneva Kiri in Thailand – has been described in the media as a visionary, having embarked on green practices that were only more recently embraced by hotels and resorts. For instance, Soneva banned plastic straws in 1998. Since then, it has branched out into an array of other initiatives with far-reaching environmental, social and economic impact under the umbrella of the Soneva Foundation.

These efforts underline Shivdasani’s stance that sustainability complements luxury, and he believes working in harmony with nature is the way forward for hospitality operators.

In a post-Covid-19 future, he is hopeful that greater strides will be made in environmental sustainability. “The current global pandemic has highlighted how interconnected we are, and how important it is that we collaborate to preserve life on earth as we know it.”

Shivdasani, also the founder of the award-winning Six Senses Resorts that was sold in 2012, elaborates on how sustainable tourism is the cornerstone of Soneva and the link between travel and conservation. 

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Sonu Shivdasani, founder and CEO of Soneva. 

What differentiates Soneva from other luxury resort offerings?

At our resorts, one does not have to destroy the planet to indulge in luxury. For example, we avoid teak and favour bamboo and eucalyptus – both fast-growing trees we grow in plantations that are just as beautiful as rare materials.

Our philosophy of “Intelligent Luxury” is about understanding what true luxury is for our customers. For guests who live in a polluted concrete jungle, a fresh salad from our organic garden is more appealing than a Mouton Rothschild. So are breathing fresh air and enjoying a beautiful view while barefoot.

Open-air cinemas, an observatory and outdoor showers are all things urban dwellers are deprived of. Our bathrooms may not have marble or gold taps, but our guests can take a shower while gazing at a full moon. And we do not apply a dress code, unlike many of our competitors, so our guests feel at home.

When it’s not raining, all of our guests dine in the open. Also, we do not serve imported water. Instead, our water menu offers six kinds of purifed water, each with a different healing crystal in it. We provide chocolate rooms that offer fair-trade dark chocolate and biodynamic wines dominate our wine lists.

Soneva has gone the extra mile in its green efforts. Can you tell us more about this?

Twelve years ago, I noticed a huge number of plastic bottles washed up on the beaches at Soneva Fushi. We decided not to point fingers. Instead, we stopped offering branded bottles of water and chose to serve water that’s filtered, mineralised, alkalised and bottled on site in reusable glass bottles. Today, all the revenue from our water sales go to the Soneva Foundation to fund the work of charities such as Thirst Aid and, more recently, Soneva Namoona.

Soneva Namoona is a partnership between Soneva Fushi, the three nearby Baa Atoll island communities of Maalhos, Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo – who traditionally consume water from plastic bottles – and the global not-for-profit organisation Common Seas. The goal is to manage waste effectively, reduce the use of single-use plastics and inspire a love for nature. 

In mid-2019, we installed the first glass bottling and water treatment centre on one of the islands. The islanders achieve 20 per cent savings on their purchases when they return the glass bottles, which are sterilised and reused. As of May, the desalinated water sold is equivalent to the content of 60,000 plastic bottles – thus avoiding this amount of plastic waste.

In February this year, Maalhos became the first island in the country to end the practice of burning its garbage, thanks to the opening of a waste centre funded by Soneva and modelled on Soneva Fushi’s Eco Centro that recycles 90 per cent of its waste. 


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02 NEW SEEDLINGS Funds from the Soneva Foundation go towards good causes, such as a reforestation programme in Thailand. 

What is the Soneva Foundation and what are some of its contributions?

The hotel industry benefits the richest at the expense of the poorest, due to our resource-hungry ways. The foundation is the result of us raising capital for good causes – such as our mandatory carbon levy – via tweaks to our business model that would not affect our profitability or image.

In 2008, we realised that our approach towards measuring carbon emissions was limited. Under the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, we were measuring only Scopes 1 and 2, and not Scope 3 – the latter covers indirect emissions due to externalities such as guests’ air travel and supplies coming into our resorts.

Surprisingly, we discovered that 85 per cent of the carbon emissions at Soneva Fushi was due to Scope 3, which the industry generally does not measure. So, we added a mandatory 2 per cent Environment Levy to offset all our emissions. It was a relatively small charge that our guests were more than happy to accept. And the rewards have been great.

In 12 years, we have raised about US$7 million (S$9.8 million), which the Soneva Foundation used to fund a reforestation programme in northern Thailand. Additionally, funds have financed wind power generators in South India and gone towards a commitment to supply 150,000 low-carbon stoves in Myanmar and Darfur. They lower indoor toxic emissions and reduce the back-breaking work borne by women who have to carry firewood. We have also built local schools, conducted eye camps, and taught Maldivian children to swim. 

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03 IN TOUCH WITH NATURE Among Soneva Fushi’s offerings that emphasise a closeness with the natural environment is an observatory. 

What is the motivation behind these for-good initiatives?

My wife Eva and I hold the firm belief that a company must have a clear purpose beyond profitability. Companies must become the solution, not the problem. At Soneva, luxury and sustainability are not opposites; they work in harmony, and this creates a unique experience, which garners guest loyalty. Having a purpose besides making money also translates into higher levels of service from our hosts and that is the ultimate measure of a luxury experience. The result is that the more sustainable we are, the more luxurious we become. 

What role does travel play in conservation efforts?

Some places have been overdeveloped for tourism – for instance, the coastal towns in Spain, where foreign developers have built large concrete jungles. Such commerce sees the outflow of earnings at the expense of the locals. To counteract this, PWC has established the Timm framework to measure the social, environmental, tax and economic impact of business activities.

Despite negative cases, I remain a strong advocate of the overall positive impact of travel and the key role it plays in conservation. Vast tracts of land in 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 those efforts. Five years ago, President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon transferred 11 million hectares of land from timber concessions and mining concessions to a national park to attract 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, is also recognised as a Unesco Biosphere.

It will be vital for travel and tourism to have a net positive contribution to the environment, as well as the community, for this industry – which has been my life for the last 30 years – to survive in a post-Covid-19 era. 

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Thilafushi Rubbish Island in the Maldives drives home the urgency of reducing waste. 

Text Adeline Wong