Can sustainability and luxury go hand in hand? Eco-hotel pioneer practiced for 27 years

At a time when the concept of sustainability is not uncommon in the hospitality industry, Sonu Shivdasani, who was one of the first to point out that the hospitality and tourism industry should be rethinking its shortcomings and calling for measures to change the status quo, has been ahead of the curve of sustainability becoming a popular trend over the past 27 years by keeping a watchful eye on the development of his hotel brands and the way they operate.
“I don’t think these goals have to go against a successful business model.” From the founding of the first luxury resort in the Maldives in 1995 to the present day, Sonu has taken the concepts of eco-friendliness and sustainability through bold measures, lending the experience to travelers and feeding the local industry and natural environment – which indeed, as Sonu envisioned, has instead become the core of its business model.
In 1995, 30 years after independence, a resort called Soneva Fushi was founded on Fushi, one of the largest islands in the Maldives. As the first luxury hotel in the history of the Maldives, the resort, located in the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve of Baa Atoll, was built with nature in mind and hosts travelers to this day. Almost 30 years have passed since then, and tourism has long been the Maldives’ number one industry, but at the time, the Maldives was a hotel industry in its infancy, and the government only allowed hotels or resorts to be built. The brand name Soneva comes from the splicing of the founding couple’s names – Sonu Shivdasani and his beloved Eva Malmstrom were travelers to the Maldives who had never been involved in the hospitality industry, but chose to design and build a resort from scratch at the time.
The entrepreneurial journey often attracted a great deal of attention in subsequent media reports for its self-induced romance. Founder Sonu Shivdasani met Eva Malmstrom while studying at Oxford University and they fell in love; Eva, a model, fell in love with the rawness and simplicity of the Maldives on a photo shoot and made a secret promise to bring her lover back in the future, and in 1987 Eva brought Sonu to the Maldives, where he was equally captivated. Eva brought Sonu to the Maldives in 1987, and the latter was equally mesmerized.
The two decided to rent an island called Kunfunadhoo in Baa Atoll and start the hotel business from scratch.
During the construction of Sonu’s resort, Sonu was responsible for the architectural design, while Eva was in charge of the interior design, with both of them giving each other a great deal of freedom. In the end, what Sonu describes as a “huge challenge” resulted in the first underground wine cellar in Maldives, and many more “firsts”. From the very first Soniva, Sonu and his team set out to create an environmentally friendly, sustainable style. To this day, experiences that typify their style include the Cinema Paradiso open-air cinema, The Den, a children’s play center, a high-tech observatory with professional telescopes, a homemade chocolate and ice-cream room, and more.
At a time when water houses were prevalent throughout the Maldives, Sonu and Eva created the instantly recognizable all-water house resort, Sonu Va Kiri, where travelers could slide directly into the ocean from the water house slides – a groundbreaking design at the time. Sadly, the hotel is no longer managed by Soneva and has resurfaced with a new look and a new name, Gili Lankanfushi, after it was devastated by fire in 2019. To this day, it remains a member of the luxury echelon, not unrelated to its forward-thinking design.
Looking at the luxury hotel sector as a whole, even though the Maldives has become synonymous with luxury hotels in many people’s minds, the fact is that some of the traditional luxury hotel brands have arrived in the Maldives at a very late stage. The first Ritz-Carlton in the Maldives opened in June last year, and also in no hurry to catch up are Capella and Patina. Luxury stalwarts Raffles and Waldorf also landed in the resort only in 2019.
In contrast, Soneva was born and has grown around its “home” in the Maldives, leaving behind three hotels in the Maldives and Thailand, as well as the Soneva in Aqua resort villa over the past 27 years.
At the experiential end of the spectrum, one of the most distinctive aspects of Soneva’s unique style is the way in which the experience shakes up the traditional understanding of what a luxury hotel is. Each traveler embarking on the island is given a bag on the plane to the island in which to place turned off electronic devices – a prelude to an escape designed by Sonu and the team for a getaway vacation. Upon arrival at the island, travelers are invited to take off their shoes and put their feet on the sand, saying goodbye to the stresses of everyday life with “barefoot luxury”.

In 2016, Soneva’s newest property, Soneva Jani, opened and once again made Soneva one of the year’s most talked-about phenomenal hotels, featuring an open roof and water slides. While the traditional definition of a luxury hotel is mostly associated with comfort, convenience and extravagance, for Sonu, luxury should be “something rare or uncommon to the consumer”, something new and authentic that resonates with the soul when experienced. What exactly does it mean to be something rare or uncommon? Sonu believes that in this day and age, rarity also means time, space, and a sense of peace, a reconnection between man and the natural world. Therefore, from the first Soniva Fushi to Sonava in Aqua, which is located far from land, to the only Soniva Chiree, which is located outside of Mardai, all of them are situated far from the beaten track and are incredibly close to nature.
When it came to building and running the resorts, Sonu and Eva had a clear idea: they didn’t want to use anything unsustainable, non-original or non-compliant. “We have always been guided by the belief that a business should have a clear goal beyond the profit-making purpose.” Sonu said in an interview that eco-friendliness and slow living are in Soniva’s brand DNA and what makes it stand out among luxury hotels.
For domestic travelers, Six Sense is the more familiar of Sonu’s hotel brands. However, given the obvious distraction of large-scale management, Sonu sold both Six Sense and Evason in 2012 in order to focus on Soniva, whose philosophy can still be seen today.
In the details of the practice, in order to truly promote effective environmental protection, the construction of Sonuwa resort only use natural environmental protection, sustainable building materials; resort banned the use of any branded water, disposable plastics and plastic straws, room cards are made of bamboo and wood; ingredients as much as possible in the local procurement of raw materials, self-built water plants and their own vegetable gardens, to avoid ingredients and branded water through the long-distance transportation of the carbon emissions, and so on.
In addition to the now systematized mode of operation that takes place inside the resort, outside the resort, the “Soniva Clean Water Project” has provided 750,000 people with safe drinking water and basic sanitation facilities in more than 500 projects in over 50 countries. Soneva has also established a Soneva Water bottling plant on Maalhos Island in the Maldives to serve the island and neighboring islands.
The Soneva Foundation focuses on environmental areas such as climate change, marine and terrestrial biodiversity restoration, and safe drinking water, as well as social issues such as malnutrition and foster care. Where possible, the Soneva Foundation employs impact investing principles, seeking to recoup its expenses through carbon financing, which in turn feeds back into its programs to help scale up impact and reach more families.
Will consumers pay for this?Sonu told us in an interview that guests staying at Soniva come from all over the world, and more than half of them are repeat guests, such as multigenerational families who have been coming back for years on end. “I would say that about half of our guests care about sustainability.” In some markets, Sonu says, “sustainability” and “luxury” are still seen as incompatible, “which is why we focus on our brand proposition, which is to bring our core objectives to life through our operations and the experiences we provide. experiences that we operate and deliver to put our core objectives into action.”

The following is a conversation with Sonu Shivdasani, Founder of the Sonuva brand:
1. In your opinion, what is the most effective way to communicate the idea of sustainability?
Sonu Shivdasani : Eva is responsible for most of the design elements, sustainability is her top priority and you can see this in all our designs, for example, plantation teak is used for most of the furniture in our cottages and sunbeds. Another element is the chairs, which are inspired by the chickens that roam freely around Soniva Fushi, these are made from coconut wood and tufts of grass. We also used sustainably grown pine poles from New Zealand, we removed the bark but retained the natural shape and shine of the wood.
Many of the fittings in our cottages, such as the fish-shaped door handles, were made on site in our Makers’ Place recycling studio. We employ local artisans to use the leftover wood to create beautifully intricate artwork and furniture for use throughout the villa, as well as for seasonal decorations such as Christmas trees – all made from sustainable wood.
2. Most hotel brands are still striving for a more convenient or luxurious experience, as a pioneer in sustainable travel, Soniva continues to expand and grow, is there a tipping point between sustainable environmental concepts and the experience travelers need and how do you find a solution?
Sonu Shivdasani : We believe that high spending doesn’t mean true luxury, rarity does. While we wanted to create a hidden paradise to satisfy the desire of luxury travelers for a dream destination, we also had a strong desire to protect the environment. “Carbon Neutral was born out of this philosophy of simplicity and sophistication, of bringing luxury back to nature. At the same time, as guardians, we take on the responsibility of being the custodians of this beautiful place.
Over the past 30 to 40 years, there has been a significant change in the wealth class. They now live in cities full of all kinds of pollution: environmental pollution, noise pollution and light pollution. Moreover, they are not in touch with nature as they used to be, and they hardly even have time to sit down and catch their breath, let alone spend a lot of time with family and friends. Sustainability and wellness is something our guests rarely experience in city life. It’s rare to relax and do something positive for the environment at the same time.
Therefore, we have combined apparent opposites and found ways in which they can co-exist hand in hand.
3. What efforts do you need from the hotel itself in order to achieve your goals? As the person at the helm of Sonuva, in what ways do you need to ensure that it is implemented?
Sonu Shivdasani : I am the first one to point out that the hotel industry and the tourism industry should reflect on the shortcomings and should take steps to change the status quo. There is no doubt that the hotel industry consumes far more than our fair share of resources. But I believe that all companies, including hotels, must have a purpose beyond making profits. These companies must play a bigger role in the world than just enriching their shareholders.
I don’t think these goals have to be antithetical to a successful business model; in fact, it can be at the heart of the business model instead. We can look for opportunities to make small positive changes that don’t negatively impact our profitability or guest attitudes, but can have huge environmental and social benefits. In fact, they can often enhance our guests’ experience. By taking bold steps, we can radically redress the balance between business and community and return to our original corporate social responsibility ethos.
4. How do you ensure that the different hotels under your umbrella, while implementing the core concepts, do so in a way that is locally relevant and locally driven?
Sonu Shivdasani : We source our food and beverage products locally as much as possible, whether it is from the Soniva Organic Garden, from the rich oceans around our islands, or from nearby islands and countries. Sourcing locally has two main advantages: firstly, our ingredients don’t have to travel as far to reach our guests’ tables, thus maintaining their nutritional value; and secondly, it reduces our carbon footprint.
In January 2019, we launched our flagship program, Soniva Namoona, which means ‘exemplary’ in Maldivian Dhivehi, which is our goal in building partnerships with local islands. Earlier this year, we implemented one of the world’s largest coral restoration projects at Soniva Fushi. The one-hectare coral farm consists of 432 tiers of structures, each with 120 fragments, and our goal is to propagate 50,000 fragments per year, nurturing “corals with a chance of survival”-those damaged by storms or rescued from sites of imminent destruction. Our goal is to propagate 50,000 coral fragments per year to produce “corals with a chance of survival” – corals that have been damaged by storms or rescued from sites of imminent destruction.

Our goal is to regenerate the reef to the state it was in 25 years ago, covering 20 hectares of outplanted coral over the next decade. We are currently using Mineral Accretion Technology (MAT) to help corals grow faster and be more resilient to bleaching events. Later this year, we will make additional investments in coral spawning and rearing labs, microfragmentation labs and restoration ponds.
5. In what ways do you access research results, the latest information on the environment? What are the steps you take to put them into actionable form?
Sonu Shivdasani: Sustainability is part of our DNA and has been our way of doing business since our inception. We have implemented sustainable practices long before sustainability became a popular trend. In many ways, we have focused on setting trends by adapting the way we grow and operate to further improve our impact on the environment. For example, we phased out plastic straws 25 years ago, long before it became a trend. We also stopped using imported water and plastic bottles in 2008, replacing them with the production of our own Soniva drinking water in reusable glass bottles. These two simple practices have become more and more common over the past few years.
We certainly keep up to date with the latest environmental news by talking to or consulting with different experts and consultants. Sustainability is constantly evolving, it’s a bit like the onion. Just when you think you’ve cracked it, you peel away another layer only to realize there’s more to do. That’s our approach – there’s always room for improvement, and we try to work to make ourselves better.
6. It has been 27 years since Sonu Vavusi was founded in the Maldives in 1995, what are the shifts in innovation in the resort sector that have taken place in the last 27 years?
Sonu Shivdasani: The process of urbanization has highlighted the importance of values such as healthy lifestyles and good design. I do foresee significant improvements in sustainability. The built environment contributes 40% of global warming gases, but modern technology can reduce this negative impact by 80%. As well as being ecologically and socially beneficial, these innovations will also make good economic sense. We should therefore expect significant reductions in energy consumption in hotels and more thinking about sustainability, whether it is more responsible purchasing, more thinking about energy and waste management, or reducing unnecessary waste.
Another demographic change is that improved technology and connectivity means less demand for business travel. Urban hotels in first-tier, prime locations will shift from being corporate-oriented to being urban oases and the heart of city life, making living in the community more valuable.
7. What kind of people are the core clientele of Soneva? What are their characteristics and how have they changed in 27 years?
Sonu Shivdasani: Guests staying at Soniva come from all over the world, and more than half of them are repeat guests, such as multigenerational families who have been coming back for years. I would say that about half of our guests care about sustainability. Our Soneva Enthusiasts, in particular, are impressed with what we’ve accomplished: whether it’s our ban on branded water, single-use plastics and plastic straws, or our mandatory environmental tax that has raised more than $9 million for the Soneva Foundation’s carbon offset program. We also recycle 90 percent of our garbage, and we continue to innovate at our resorts’ Eco-Centro Waste-to-Treasure facilities. Some people still say to themselves, “Well, if it’s sustainable, it can’t be luxurious.” That’s why we focus on our brand proposition, Inspiring a Lifetime of Rare Experiences. We bring our core purpose to life through the experiences we operate and deliver.
As climate change and its impacts become evident, the world is striving for authentic experiences. Living in the moment is everything. When guests go on vacation, we don’t want them to do the same things they do at home – we want them to escape, to dream, to feel. For that, you need to experience. I’m a firm believer that a successful business can combine obvious contrasts and make those opposites compatible. Once this is done, it creates an experience that is both unique and admirable, one that immediately fosters guest loyalty.
8. In your opinion, what is the fit between the Asian traveler, the Chinese traveler, and the philosophy you deliver?
Sonu Shivdasani : Our hotels are very popular with Chinese travelers. Prior to the outbreak, our market share in China was 27% for Soneva Kiri in Thailand, 11% for Soneva Jani and a smaller share for Soneva Fushi, both in the Maldives.
The outbreak had a huge impact on all three of our resorts in the Maldives and Thailand, but fortunately we maintained a strong market presence in China and Asia. There were virtually no travel restrictions in the Maldives during the outbreak, so we have still received a large number of international guests over the past two years, including many Chinese guests living abroad. We have seen particularly strong growth in short-haul markets, such as India, due to the high degree of proximity of the source regions, as well as the excellent traveler safety and security and services provided by our hosts. Typically, short-haul travelers stay longer and often return more than once a year.
9. Has the willingness to practice sustainable travel increased or decreased since the New Crown outbreak?
Sonu Shivdasani : The outbreak has given many people the opportunity to pause and rethink their values, and more importantly to think about their priorities in life. I believe travelers will become more health conscious, more aware of nature, more attentive to the planet giving challenges, and seek unique experiences that are eco-friendly and protective of the environment.
We become stronger, more resilient and more confident in our goal to continue creating unforgettable, lasting memories while taking better care of the planet.
10. What are the next revealing and new moves that Sonuva will make?
Sonu Shivdasani : We have a number of exciting new projects coming up in the next few months, including a brand new one-bedroom beach house at Sonuva Jani. We also recently launched The Den, a brand new family zone at Soniva Jani, inspired by the wonder of childhood, a two-story imaginative playground that is now one of the largest kids’ clubs in Asia.
Earlier this year, we partnered with Teamwork Arts to bring the iconic Jaipur Literature Festival to Soniva Fushi for the first time, inviting more than 30 writers and artists from around the world to celebrate literature, music and art. The Jaipur Literature Festival is a study in slow living, experiencing morning yoga, inspiring workshops, world-class international cuisine and stunning sunsets by the blue sea. Environment, travel, wellness, history, sustainability, poetry, astronomy and many other topics are also part of the panel discussions, events and workshops. The success of the first event led to the decision to organize the second edition from 12 to 21 May 2023.Soneva Soul is the first of its kind in the Maldives.
Soneva Soul is the first resort spa in the Maldives and next year we will also be hosting a 10-day wellness festival called Soul, which will feature a series of insightful talks, presentations and specialized wellness programs by leading practitioners from India.


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