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Clean island living is a luxury

Fresh air, seclusion, and space to disconnect are rare commodities today, says Soneva founder Sonu Shivdasani

The beach on the Baa atoll. Photo: Giulio Di Sturco
The beach on the Baa atoll. Photo: Giulio Di Sturco

Sonu Shivdasani’s tanned face and lean frame is witness to the amount of time he spends in the sun and his emphasis on clean living. While I guzzle coffee during our hour-long breakfast meeting in Delhi, he sips green tea and makes notes in a much used leather-bound planner. The Indian-British hotelier is the founder and chief executive officer of Soneva, which owns several luxury island resorts in the Maldives and Thailand. His wife Eva and he have made their home on Soneva Fushi, their flagship resort on Kunfunadhoo island in the Maldives’ Baa atoll. He talks to Lounge about his fascination for islands, and creating memorable experiences for travellers. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Sonu and Eva Shivdasani on Kunfunadhoo island, where Soneva Fushi is located. Photo: Richard Waite

All the Soneva resorts are based on islands. What draws you to islands?

The Italian word for island is isola. The Collins Dictionary and Thesaurus describes “isolate" and “isolated" as: cut off, detached, disconnected, hidden, off the beaten track, secluded. I love islands because they are precisely that, isolated. They offer privacy, space, the ability to disconnect, and seclusion. All things that are important to me.

Do you have a favourite among the Soneva resorts?

Eva and I live at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives. We consider it our home.

Are beach holidays popular with Indian travellers?

Generally, Indian travellers are not associated with enjoying the beach. That said, the Indian population is large and the small minority that do enjoy such exotic holidays still account for a large number of people.

While we encourage guests to switch off at our resorts, we do still offer high-speed Wi-Fi that they can turn off at will. Similarly, there are televisions but these are hidden away in trunks.

Where do you see the future of luxury beach travel?

We see what we do in terms of the beach holiday experience appealing to more and more people. Our brand proposition is “inspiring a lifetime of rare experiences".

Over time, the word luxury has become misused. Luxury is not about objects. It is about a concept and a philosophy, and it is essentially about that which is not commonplace and which one does not get every day. For the rich today, eating in a designer air-conditioned restaurant run by a famous chef, or sitting in the back seat of a German car, is commonplace. However, space, privacy, fresh food and fresh air are rare. And there’s no better setting than a private island to offer all these to our guests and inspire them with rare experiences. As well as allowing us to create unique, beyond-compare guest experiences, private islands also allow us to be a microcosm of the way we think life can be around the world, of a luxurious lifestyle that is sustainable. Personally, for myself, this is a very important aspect of what we do.

The eco centre at Soneva Kiri recycles 74% of the resort’s waste. Photo: Antonina Gern

Luxury and sustainability seem to be two diametrically different things. Can luxury be sustainable?

It is if you redefine what luxury means. At Soneva, our core purpose is “slow life". We aim to offer our guests luxuries while minimizing our impact on the planet and enhancing their health. I don’t believe that this has to run counter to a successful business model—in fact, it can be central to it. We find opportunities to make small positive changes that do not impact negatively on either our profitability or our guests’ perception of our products, yet which can generate considerable good for both the environment and society.

What have been some of your most effective measures towards sustainability?

At Soneva, we have made some radical changes to the way we do things, but we are the first to admit that this is the beginning of a journey and there is still much to do. Our hotels are located amongst some of the world’s most pristine waters and natural environments, which makes us acutely aware of their natural importance and passionate about conserving them. Reducing our environmental impact is central to our company’s philosophy. We have implemented some specific initiatives that we can practise in our own business, but we also have programmes that are designed to impact the wider world.

In 2008, we took the simple step of adding a mandatory 2% carbon levy to our guests’ bills, to offset their travel emissions. In four years, we raised about $5m (around Rs32.3 crore now), which was used to fund a reforestation programme in northern Thailand, planting half a million trees to mitigate around 400,000 tons of CO2. Additionally, funds have financed wind-power generators in south India, and 150,000 low-carbon cooking stoves in Myanmar and Darfur (Sudan).

Another example of a small change that did not affect profitability but does a lot of good, is our decision to ban branded bottled water at our resorts since 2008. Instead, we serve water that is bottled on site. Apart from the obvious ecological benefits from taking a linear process and making it circular, and creating a smarter, more elegant table-top experience for our guests, we discovered that we also achieved financial savings serving purified and energized tap water compared with imported branded water. This saving has given 600,000 people access to clean water.

In the Maldives, we initiated the Learn To Swim programme to teach the children of the Maldives to swim. We hope that they will learn to love their ocean, and when they love it, they will protect it. The programme is supported by film-maker and National Geographic adventurer Jon Bowermaster.

We also convene some of the world’s greatest minds across science, business, philanthropy and policy at our annual SLOW LIFE Symposium, creating a space to address the worst challenges threatening our incredible natural environment, and find tangible, collaborative solutions.

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