Can we still make the world a better place by travelling sustainably? Even though this question may seem to point to a contradiction or, at the very least, to a pious wish, more and more hotels and resorts are trying to solve this riddle as they gradually respond to an increasing demand for sustainable travel. One of the first hoteliers to venture into this field — of his own accord — as early as 1995, was Indian-British entrepreneur Sonu Shivdasani. His Soneva resorts serve as showcases for sustainable and responsible luxury travel.

In the beginning was the vision

It all started with a rather small venture. Eva and Sonu Shivdasani discovered the deserted island of Kunfunadhoo in the Maldives on their honeymoon. Enchanted by the island, they decided to make it their home base where they would try to live by sustainable principles. “At the time, many people around us thought that our focus on environmental protection was crazy,” Sonu Shivdasani told a reporter from the German newspaper Handelsblatt in a recent interview. Many other people were enthusiastic about his and his wife’s ideas, however. Affirmed in their vision, the Shivdasanis laid the cornerstone for a small empire. They opened their first resort, Soneva Fushi, in 1995 and followed suit with Soneva Kiri on the pristine Thai island of Koh Kood in 2009.

In 2011, they made another big splash: As the first, and to date only, project developer, Soneva facilitates purchases of villas in the Maldives, offering a limited number of Soneva Fushi’s luxurious villas for sale. Each villa has its own beach area and pool. Naturally, all of the villas were built with sustainable materials in line with the Shivdasanis’ environmental vision. In 2016, the Soneva Jani resort opened in the Maldivian Noonu atoll. The couple also founded the successful Six Senses Resorts and Spas group as well as Evason Resorts. Both collections of properties have since been sold. 

Even before the first visitors set foot on the island, the couple was determined to offer and use local products and to treat the natural environment responsibly in concert with the local community. Remaining authentic has been the main ingredient of the Soneva group’s success. Sonu Shivdasani explains the corporate vision as follows: “Eva and I have always believed that success stems from reconciling opposites, from replacing an ‘either/or’ with an ‘and’. Our resorts exhibit all the features of sustainable luxury. We offer delicious food that is also healthy.” He firmly believes that companies must follow a higher purpose than simply generating revenues for shareholders. This philosophy may run in the family—Mr Shivdasani’s father established a foundation to promote educational projects in India and his sister was greatly involved in furthering women’s education.

The luxury of a good conscience

“True luxury touches people’s hearts,” says Mr Shivdasani. His and his wife’s resorts are successful precisely because of the guests’ active integration in the corporate sustainability strategies in combination with less overt measures. The resorts’ water supply, for example, is completely self-sufficient thanks to water filtration and bottling stations. Guests pay for water, but 100% of the revenue is donated to clean water projects. Each guest pays a 2% environmental tax during their stay, which in turn flows into projects with a positive environmental and social impact.

Soneva Eco Centros recycle 90% of the resorts’ waste or reuse it, when possible. At Soneva Glass Studios, guests can watch artists produce goblets and vases from glass waste and even try their hand at glass blowing. Indirect emissions caused by the guests’ air travel are offset by CO2 compensation programs such as the Myanmar Stoves Campaign, which supplies clean cooking stoves to people in more impoverished regions and is only one of the Soneva Foundation’s many projects. The Women in Soneva Program opens up career opportunities to Maldivian women by guaranteeing them a safe working environment and the Soneva Forest Restoration Project promotes reforestation in Northern Thailand.

Commitment instead of castles in the air

Every year, Soneva Resorts applies strict criteria to assess all measures taken and publishes the results in the company’s sustainability report. If necessary, adjustments are made.

The Shivdasanis and their employees constantly generate new ideas. And Soneva’s sustainability efforts do not stop at its own front door—the company also encourages its suppliers to follow strict guidelines. They must abstain from using child labor, comply with anti-discrimination policies, and show their commitment to integrity and environmental protection. 

Today, Mr Shivdasani concentrates on promoting Soneva’s corporate culture and upholding its values and philosophy. His team is united in its strong commitment to these values—even the company’s Chief Commercial Officer is a staunch environmentalist and vegan. But it isn’t just an inner conviction that unites the Soneva family, but also a shared experience of the pandemic. As Mr Shivdasani said in a recent interview, “We have grown much closer as a team during the crisis.”

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