with the Founders Soneva Group of Hotels; Sonu Shivdasani, CEO and Eva Malmström Shivdasani, Creative Director and Conscience

PUBLISHED August 05, 2023 | updated August 16, 2023 03:38

In 1995, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani founded SONEVA to create locally crafted villas and promote eco-conscious living. Their vision sparked the trend of luxury holidays reconnecting people with nature, fostering a collaborative community that cherishes the environment and offers personalized experiences. SONEVA maintains a strong commitment to environmental and social responsibility, prioritizing the protection of ecosystems and local culture. Their resorts are built sustainably, banning plastic and sourcing food locally to minimize their carbon footprint. We spoke with Sonu Shivdasani about the importance of sustainability in the travel industry today.

1. As the founders of Soneva, a luxury resort company dedicated to sustainability, what inspired you to integrate environmental initiatives into your business model?

Ever since Eva was a small child, she was brought up to always think about our planet. This is something which her parents instilled in her, she has always cared about nature and this is something that she taught me and then all of our Hosts. Her nickname has been “The Conscience” since she was a child.  Her personal philosophy has significantly influenced the ethos of our hospitality brand, Soneva, and has shaped its core values and practices. Our personal experiences and values have served as a compass for shaping the Soneva brand, and we strive to create resorts that reflect our own way of life. By infusing sustainability, cultural authenticity, well-being, and meaningful experiences into every aspect of Soneva, we hope to inspire guests to embrace a more conscious and fulfilling way of traveling and living.

Our shared passion for sustainability and protecting the environment has been a driving force behind Soneva's commitment to sustainable luxury. From the inception of Soneva, we sought to create resorts that not only provided luxurious experiences but also minimized their ecological footprint and made a positive impact on the environment. This commitment to sustainability is a direct reflection of how we have lived our lives, prioritizing responsible choices and mindful practices that respect and preserve the natural world.

2. Can you explain Soneva's core philosophy in terms of protecting biodiversity and habitats around the resorts, and how it aligns with the concept of "slow life"?

‘Slow Life’ is our guiding principle - both our moral and operational compass. Through this ethos, we aim to tread lightly on the earth, while creating rare and inspiring experiences for our guests, making memories that last a lifetime. 

Our Slow Life focus has led to levels of guest loyalty and repeat business that far surpass industry norms, and this tells me unequivocally that the values of a company matter to those who consume its products.

The acronym Slow Life represents the core principles and values that guide our sustainability efforts and overall approach to hospitality. Each letter in "SLOW LIFE" represents a specific aspect of our commitment to sustainable luxury and responsible practices: SLOW LIFE (Sustainable – Local – Organic – Wellness – Learning – Inspiring – Fun – Experiences.) Let me explain further: 

S - Sustainable: We prioritize sustainability in every aspect of our operations, from minimizing our carbon footprint to promoting eco-friendly practices and preserving natural resources. We strive to ensure that our resorts have a positive impact on the environment and local communities.

L - Local: We celebrate and support local communities by engaging with them, sourcing locally and by working with local communities to solve challenges they face, such as our Soneva Namoona activities.

O - Organic: Organic and locally sourced ingredients for our culinary offerings are a vital part for our F&B offering, with all of our resorts featuring organic gardens which supply our restaurants with herbs, vegetables and fruits. Our commitment to organic practices extends to our spas, where we utilize  only natural, organic products.

W - Wellness: We believe in fostering holistic well-being for our guests through our wellness programs and facilities. Soneva Soul promotes physical and mental health, relaxation, and rejuvenation.

L - Learning: We aim to educate and inspire our guests by providing opportunities for learning and exploration. Through Soneva Academy, educational talks at AquaTerra, and interactive experiences, we raise awareness about sustainability, environmental conservation, and local cultures.

I - Inspiring: From unique dining concepts and recreational activities to innovative architecture and design, we aim to ignite a sense of wonder, curiosity, and awe.

F - Fun: We believe in the importance of joy and light-heartedness creating a playful and enjoyable atmosphere for our guests, ensuring that their stay is not only enriching but also filled with moments of laughter, happiness, and memorable experiences.

E - Experience: We are committed to providing exceptional and personalized experiences that exceed our guests' expectations. Every interaction, from arrival to departure, is designed to create lasting memories and a sense of enchantment.

3. How do you engage and educate your guests about environmental sustainability during their stay at Soneva resorts?

The guests that stay at Soneva come from all over the world and more than half of them are repeat guests, like the multi-generational families who have been coming to stay with us for years on end. We attract a lot of families with our extensive programme of activities for children and teenagers. Our children’s clubs, called The Den, offer so much excitement and opportunities for learning. We also see guests who take great interest in water sports, diving, and wellness.  

I would say about half of our guests care about sustainability; our Soneva Enthusiasts certainly do. They are very impressed by what we have achieved: whether it’s that we banned branded water, single-use plastics, and plastic straws or that our mandatory environmental levy has raised USD10+ million for the Soneva Foundation's carbon offsetting projects. We also recycle 90% of our waste and our resorts’ Eco-Centro Waste to Wealth facilities are constantly innovating.    

That said, in certain markets people still think to themselves, "well, if it’s sustainable it cannot be luxurious." This is why we focus on our brand proposition of, ‘Inspiring a Lifetime of Rare Experiences’. We bring our core purpose to life through our operations and the experiences we offer. 

Our guests change while they’re with us. This may sound like a naïve message coming from an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, accessible only to a handful of travellers, but we see it as an awareness building experience. We want people to recognize the necessity of repairing the damage that we have caused to the environment; the energy we consume or the water that we take for granted. The hospitality industry can make a huge impact by getting this message across. We get our guests involved so that they can spread the good word about giving back to the planet.

4. How did Soneva address the issue of carbon emissions from guest flights and other resort activities? & How has Soneva been carbon neutral as an organization since 2010, and what are your plans for decarbonizing all three resorts by 2030?

In 2008, we learnt that our carbon emissions measurement was incomplete as we didn’t consider scope 3, which includes guest travel and supplies. We found that 85% of CO2 emissions at Soneva Fushi came from scope 3. To offset emissions, we added a 2% Environmental Levy to guests' bills, investing in projects with positive environmental, social, and economic impacts.

Soneva has been carbon neutral since 2012, setting an example in the luxury hospitality industry for sustainability. Their goal is to decarbonize all three resorts by 2030, focusing on reducing emissions, adopting renewable energy, and exploring new technologies for a net-zero carbon footprint. They also plan to expand efforts in sustainable transportation, waste management, and carbon offset initiatives.

Through these ambitious plans, Soneva aims to lead the way towards a sustainable future for luxury hospitality and inspire action against climate change.

5. What steps do you take to ensure that the local communities surrounding your resorts benefit from your sustainability initiatives?

We have been working in the Maldives for a few years now far beyond the hospitality scope, specifically the environmental and sustainability initiatives we do with Soneva Namoona.

Soneva Namoona is an environmental and sustainability initiative launched in 2019 in the Maldives. It aims to address waste disposal challenges, including burning garbage and single-use plastics littering beaches and coral reefs. The initiative, founded by Soneva and island councils, focuses on three core components: Reduce, Recycle, and Inspire.

They installed the first glass water bottling center, reducing plastic bottle waste. Maalhos became the first island to stop burning garbage through their Eco Centro waste-to-wealth center. They expanded their efforts to more islands in 2021, promoting waste management and environmental stewardship.

Soneva Namoona is a non-profit Maldivian NGO, dedicated to working with local islands to manage waste and eliminate single-use plastic. They also collaborated with Women's Development Committees to create an innovative second-hand market connecting multiple islands. 

6. Soneva has made significant efforts in waste management, particularly through its waste-to-wealth programs. Could you provide examples of how these programs work and their positive impact on the environment?

Sustainability has always been at the heart of Soneva’s ethos, from sourcing sustainable materials and pioneering ‘waste-to-wealth’ practices, to working in partnership with our local communities. 

One example from recent years is Makers’ Place at Soneva Fushi. Launched in the summer of 2021, this fully carbon-neutral recycling studio transforms waste into works of art. Developed in partnership with artist Alexander James Hamilton, it tackles discarded aluminium and plastics from the soft drinks industry, which sadly often wash up on the Maldives’ shores. Within its first three days of operation, the studio processed 15,000 aluminium cans alone, creating a better end life for these once-discarded, unwanted materials, and removing them from the fragile ecosystem.

7. How does Soneva incorporate renewable energy sources into its operations, and what steps are you taking to reduce reliance on fossil fuels?

At Soneva, we are deeply committed to incorporating renewable energy sources into our operations as part of our sustainability journey. We understand the critical role renewable energy plays in reducing our carbon footprint and mitigating the impacts of climate change. Here are some of the steps we are taking to achieve this:

1. Solar Power: A recent example is our solar power developments at Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani which are based on USD 10 million in funding provided by German-headquartered Aareal Bank and will boost the electricity generated from renewable energy to over 50% at both resorts. Soneva secret will be almost 100% reliable on solar power. By utilizing solar energy, we reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Energy Efficiency: While incorporating renewable energy is essential, we also focus on energy efficiency. Our resorts are equipped with energy-efficient appliances, lighting, and HVAC systems, reducing overall energy consumption and increasing our sustainability efforts. Our hosts play an important role in that aspect.

3. Responsible Design and Construction: When building new structures or renovating existing, we prioritize sustainable design practices. This includes optimizing building orientation and follow natural curves, using only sustainably sourced  materials and insulation & ventilation to reduce energy demands.

4. Innovative Technologies: We continually explore and invest in cutting-edge technologies that promote sustainable energy usage. 

Our aim is to make Soneva a shining example of sustainable luxury hospitality, where renewable energy and responsible practices are seamlessly integrated into every aspect of our operations. By reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and embracing renewable energy solutions, we strive to be a catalyst for positive change in the global fight against climate change.

8. Sustainable food production is another focus area for Soneva. Could you elaborate on your farm-to-table approach and initiatives to promote local, organic, and fair-trade food sourcing?

Sustainable food production is indeed a core focus area for Soneva, and we take great pride in our farm-to-table approach and initiatives that promote local, organic, and fair-trade food sourcing. Our commitment to sustainable food practices is an integral part of our overall mission to reduce our ecological footprint and support local communities. 

At our resorts, we have established organic gardens that supply a significant portion of the fresh produce used in our restaurants, up to 90% of greens are grown in our resorts and served in all our dining destinations.  These gardens are meticulously managed using natural and sustainable farming practices, without the use of harmful chemicals or synthetic fertilizers.

For all our resorts in the Maldives and Thailand, we follow a sea-to-table approach, sourcing seafood from sustainable and responsible fishing practices. This helps protect marine ecosystems and ensures the long-term viability of fish populations.

Our chefs work closely with our food and beverage team to create menus that prioritize seasonal and locally available ingredients. By adapting to the seasonal availability of produce, we reduce the need for energy-intensive preservation methods and support sustainable farming cycles. Lastly, we strive to minimize food waste throughout our operations. Any surplus food for leftovers are reused in our waste-to- wealth centers into fertilizers and more. 

9. Soneva places a strong emphasis on preserving marine ecosystems. What measures have you implemented to protect and conserve the marine environment around your resorts?

At Soneva, we proudly consider ourselves stewards of our planet. Since our inception in 1995, we have been at the forefront of the Maldives' sustainable future, championing various initiatives to combat climate change. One particularly important endeavour we have undertaken is our commitment to coral conservation and restoration.

We recognise the crucial role coral reefs play in marine ecosystems and the urgent need to protect and restore these delicate habitats. In April 2023, we opened AquaTerra, an education and research centre that serves as a hub for our conservation efforts. It brings together sustainability, science and unique experiences to advance varied initiatives, including the Soneva Foundation’s Coral Restoration Programme.

In collaboration with Coralive and Soneva Fushi, the Soneva Foundation has established one of the world's largest coral nurseries using Mineral Accretion Technology (MAT) at Soneva Fushi. With 432 table structures, the aim is to propagate 50,000 corals each year. Additionally, AquaTerra houses a spawning and rearing laboratory for assisted evolution and the creation of heat-resilient super corals, as well as a 3D-printing laboratory for coral substrate production. Soon, a micro-fragmenting laboratory will be installed, producing up to 100,000 corals annually. Guests at Soneva Fushi can also take behind-the-scenes tours of AquaTerra, combining them with snorkeling tours or visits to our organic gardens and Eco Centro Waste to Wealth centre.

Through the Soneva Foundation, guests also have the opportunity to sponsor coral nursery tables, leaving their mark on the planet in a unique way. Donors receive photos, updates and personalised name tags for their sponsored coral tables. 

Our commitment to coral conservation and restoration reflects our belief in the interconnectedness of all living beings and ecosystems. Through these sustainable projects, we aim to protect ocean biodiversity, support local communities dependent on healthy reefs, and create positive environmental impact.

10. As pioneers in the luxury travel industry, how do you envision the future of sustainable tourism, and what role do you believe businesses should play in driving positive change in the sector?

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 don't 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. 

By taking bold steps we can fundamentally redress the balance between business and communities and shift back to the original purpose of the corporation as a service to society.



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