Soneva is 25 years old this year, and while 2020 hasn’t been much of a year for celebration so far, Founder and CEO Sonu Shivdasani can still find cause for optimism.

This crisis that the world is going through has allowed many people the opportunity to pause and rethink their values and importantly their priorities. I suspect that travelers will become more health focused, more aware of nature, and more sensitive to the challenges of the planet,” he states.

A focus on health and nature is certainly an area of expertise for Soneva – a brand which has been taking concrete steps not only to live up to guest expectations, but also to make changes in its whole approach to business for the betterment of the environment. The travel sector is not readily associated with being “green” in the popular imagination, except perhaps on a superficial level, but Sonu points out that despite perceptions, air travel accounts for only around 2-3% of the CO2 generated annually, with agriculture and livestock accounting for much, much more. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement, though, as Sonu came to appreciate.

In 2008, we realized that our approach towards measuring carbon emissions was limited as we weren’t measuring the externalities – guests flying in, supplies coming into our resorts, etc. We thus decided to measure scope 3. To our great surprise, we discovered that 85% of the CO2 emissions from Soneva Fushi come from scope 3, which the industry in general does not measure. So, we took the simple step of adding a mandatory 2% Environmental Levy to our guests’ bills, to off-set all our emissions,” he explains.

The idea of off-setting carbon emissions with cash only works if the money can be put to good use, and Soneva achieves this through the Soneva Foundation, which is a charity registered in the UK. The idea is not just to use donations, but to use the savings which result from more sustainable practices. One example would be the way the Foundation got its initial funding,

Twelve years ago, I noticed a huge number of plastic water bottles washed up on our beaches at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives, so we took the decision to stop offering branded bottle water, and instead serve water filtered, mineralised, alkalised, and bottled on site in reusable glass bottles. 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, and more recently, Soneva Namoona,” says Sonu.

Soneva Namoona is a partnership between Soneva Fushi, the three nearby Baa Atoll Island communities of Maalhos, Dharavandhoo, and Kihaadhoo, and international NGO Common Seas. The partnership seeks to provide a blueprint for all Maldivian islands on how they can cleanly and effectively manage their waste, reduce the use of single-use plastics, and inspire a love for the natural environment.”

Soneva Namoona

More recently, Soneva has been able to build on its progress in reducing the reliance on plastic by creating the first bottling center in the Maldives to use glass bottles. “Traditionally, the water consumed in restaurants, guest houses, and generally by the public on the islands is from plastic bottles from the water bottling company in Male, the capital of the Maldives,” says Sonu. “Soneva Namoona filters, and mineralizes the desalinated island water and then places it in sterilized glass water bottles. When the bottles are returned, the user achieves a 20% saving compared to buying water in plastic bottles from Male.”

In February 2020, we celebrated another Maldives’ first when Maalhos became the first island in the country to end the practice of burning its garbage in open bonfires. This was made possible by the opening of the island’s Eco Centro waste to wealth centre, funded by Soneva. It is a waste processing facility that sorts all the waste into different types such as plastic, glass, tin, and wood, then compacts, crushes, and chips it where possible, and sends it off the island for recycling.”

Since the creation of the Soneva Foundation, the venture has raised around US$ 7 million, which has been put to good use in financing a reforestation program in northern Thailand, wind power generators in southern India, and 150,000 low carbon cooking stoves in Myanmar and Darfur.

It is this strong ethos which Soneva guests appreciate, and which gives Sonu confidence that his properties will continue to thrive in the post-pandemic era. “Even though the second quarter of 2020 will be the period of the greatest economic decline in history, and in spite of the fact that we are going into a recession, I still suspect that consumers will be prepared to spend that little bit extra for a unique experience as they will value the precious time with their families more, now than ever,” he explains.

It is going to be difficult. It is true that there will certainly be much more supply of certain types of hotel than demand. That said, Soneva is very unique and our guests will still be wealthy and they will be prepared to pay that extra amount for what we do so well. We will continue to do what we have. We have a strategic competitive advantage as we are both Owner and Operator of our hotels so, we can move quickly, we are flexible, and we can create unique special experiences for our guests that others cannot,” he adds.

The uniqueness to which Sonu refers is expressed through the philosophies underpinning the design of the properties. “At Soneva, a lot of thought is put into ensuring that our built environments are as healthy as they can be. We ensure that the villas are light and airy. A window bringing in clear daylight is never more than 5 meters away,” he explains. “We design our villas so that they are naturally ventilated, and our guests can live comfortably without having to use the air conditioning. It is very important for our health that we do spend a big part of our day exposed to the natural temperature around us, and that we do not spend all our lives in artificial environments. They also have big open gardens or decks where guests can be exposed to the sun. Vitamin D3 is very important to boost one's immune system.”

The idea of combining the elements of nature and luxury has been a part of Soneva’s identity from the very beginning, according to Sonu. “We wanted to create a hideaway that would satisfy our desires for a dream destination for those who liked to travel in luxurious style, we also had this overwhelming desire to protect the environment.  The end result was born out of the philosophy of simple sophistication and returning luxuriously to nature, whilst also shouldering the responsibility of being custodians of the beautiful places we operate in,” he says. “In today’s society, luxury translates into peace, time, and space.”

A focus on better health is also driving Soneva to innovate in the kitchen. Since surviving a cancer scare, Sonu has transformed his own diet and has never felt better. Remembering the impact that farming has on our environment, it made perfect sense to redesign menus to minimize the use of beef and dairy products, while chef KPIs also include the goal of cutting down on sugar and flour, thereby improving the health of guests and the planet alike.

Having already done so much to operate in a responsible and sustainable manner, it is no surprise that Sonu has strong feelings about the potential for further changes when the travel industry begins its inevitable recovery.

In a post Covid-19 world, consumers will be more conscious of the impact that they will have on both nature and the communities which they visit. It will be vital for travel and tourism to have a net positive contribution to conservation, the environment as well as the community in order for this industry, which has been my life for the last 30 years, to survive in a post COVID-19 era,” he states. “The pace of innovation is such that the ‘ecological’ solutions will more and more become the most ‘economic’ solutions.”

If Sonu Shivdasani is proved correct, many more hotels will be obliged to take a leaf out of Soneva’s book.