People / Planet
June 18, 2019

REDEFINING LUXURY: Soneva Sustainability And Style Is A Dream Come True

Words by Matt Leedham
Soneva Jani, Maldives

The Soneva brand was launched 24 years ago in 1995 as the first ‘castaway’ resort to grace the shores of the Maldives.

Today, Soneva comprises of three resorts including two in the Maldives (Fushi & Jani) and one in Thailand (Kiri) and is widely regarded as a leader in the world of sustainable hospitality.

Since the creation of their first resort in the Maldives in 1995, sustainability has been their mission, and they’ve been refining the concept ever since.

Soneva’s motto is “guardians of places that have existed long before us, our unique vision is inspired by nature’s magnitude, mystery and enchanting beauty” and is perfectly illustrative of the entire brand.

Inspired by a deep-seated conviction that luxury shouldn’t be about gold and marble, Soneva instead proves that opulence can be au naturel with some of the most gorgeously insane natural design you will see on the planet.

Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, Soneva Founders

Sonu and Eva Shivdasani, the dynamic husband-and-wife duo behind Soneva believe that to feel the sand underfoot, bathe outdoors beneath a canopy of lush vegetation, and dine under starry skies is what true luxury is all about.

During the construction of their flagship resort back in 1995, Soneva Fushi, the couple refused to use any rainforest or unsustainable wood, and instead constructed the world’s first castaway chic resort from recycled and environmentally-friendly materials such as bamboo, coconut and wood.

Soneva Fushi, Maldives
Soneva Jani, Maldives

In doing so, they birthed the back-to-nature, barefoot luxury trend that has since gained popularity globally over the last two decades.

In 2016, Soneva again pioneered the way by publishing the first ever Total Impact Assessment tool to measure the impact of the company’s operations in five categories: natural capital; human capital; social capital; economic capital; and tax.

In addition to their annual sustainability reports, this innovative tool allows the company to review the direct effect their resorts are having on the environment, as well as the indirect impact of their supply chain and air travel for guests; in turn positioning them to make better decisions, efficiently allocate resources and influence the business decisions of suppliers.

The Soneva Foundation

What will you experience during your stay?

Soneva’s famed ‘intelligent luxury’ philosophy is about knowing what luxury means for each guest; most of whom live in urban environments.

Soneva says it’s about understanding the minutiae of their daily lives and travel needs and catering to them in a thoughtful, personalised manner.

Intelligent luxury places emphasis on offering guests experiences that are simultaneously new – in that they’re rare, unusual and exceptional – and cherished.

Treepod dining at Soneva Kiri, Thailand
Soneva Jani Resort Spa
Soneva Fushi Restaurant – Fresh in the garden

It’s a unique concept that was borne out of Sonu and Eva’s desire to create dream destinations for those who like to travel in style, integrated seamlessly with their desire to protect the environment and local communities.

For Soneva guests, this is manifested in the form of an exceptional, guilt-free holiday where they can relax in the knowledge that the materials used to construct their beautiful villa were sourced sustainably, the food on their plate was farmed ethically, and their hosts are treated with genuine respect.

From the smiling team of Mr and Ms Friday butlers to the resorts’ sommeliers, gardeners and chefs, the committed and passionate hosts that make up Soneva are the real heroes of the company’s sustainability initiatives.

These hard-working individuals are known affectionally as the Soneva Changemakers. Speak to any of the Soneva Changemakers and they’ll tell you that they live and breathe by the brand’s SLOW LIFE acronym, which encapsulates the ideologies of Sustainable, Local, Organic, Wellness, Learning, Inspiring, Fun, Experiences.

Once again throwing the common perception of ‘luxury’ into question, Soneva’s SLOW LIFE philosophy places emphasis on unique and special experiences that leave an eternal imprint on guests’ hearts.

According to the Soneva team, luxury is about experiences outside the norm. It’s about giving guests treasured moments with their loved ones in evocative settings that highlight the beauty of nature.

Picnic time, Soneva Fushi style
Cinema Paradiso at Soneva Kiri, Thailand

Rather than sit in a sterile, air-conditioned restaurant to enjoy food prepared by an award-winning chef, why not let a deserted sandbank at sunset be the venue? Instead of turning the TV on, why not watch a movie beneath balmy, moonlit skies at Cinema Paradiso?

Guests can choose from a mind-blowing list of once-in-a-lifetime experiences that are designed to immerse them in the extravagance of nature, including a sunset dolphin cruise, snorkelling with mantas, stargazing at Soneva Jani’s overwater Observatory, embarking on a guided aquatic adventure, or catching an exclusive wave with the world’s first eco-surfing program.

Soneva Surf

‘Soneva Surf’ is an eco-friendly surfing experience that aims to be a model for sustainable surfing around the world where surfing gusts can select the experience that suits them, according to their level of expertise, time and budget.

Everything required for a day in the ocean, from rash guards to sunscreen and wax, is provided and is (of course) entirely eco-friendly. Soneva’s eco boards are made from poxy resin, bamboo woven mats, and bio-foam, which comprises materials converted from natural plant materials (soy, sugar and algae).

Manufactured by an approved ECOBOARD builder, the production of these boards produces 40% less carbon dioxide emissions than regular surfboards.

Soneva Fushi – Fresh in the garden

What will the positive impact of your stay be?

Across the three Soneva properties there are simply too many awe-inspiring sustainability initiatives to list, and considering there are entire teams within the organisation dedicated to constantly innovating the business’ practices to ensure it leaves minimal impact on the planet, this comes as no surprise. 

Soneva has a target of zero waste and already recycles 90% of its solid waste, with glass, food waste, jungle trimmings and polystyrene all processed onsite.

Now the focus is on tackling the last 10%, which includes small amounts of plastic, paper, cloth and tetra pak packaging.

All glass is crushed and re-blown onsite (in a professional, dedicated glass-blowing studio at Soneva Fushi) into decorations for the resorts or household items that are donated to charity.

Both resorts create their own cooking charcoal and coconut oil, grow their own produce (fed by compost from resort waste and nutrient-rich water from water treatment ponds) in extensive organic vegetable gardens, house solar panels to save fossil fuels, and are absolute visionaries when it comes to plastic.

The Soneva properties have been plastic straw free for more than 20 years and in 2008, they banned imported water, and have saved approximately 1.5 million plastic bottles since.

As part of their ‘Soneva Maker Programme’ and in partnership with global grass-roots initiative, ‘Precious Plastic’, Soneva recycles plastic that washes onto the resorts’ pristine shores, making a range of useful products like flower pots and building blocks.

Cleaning up plastic at Soneva Fushi. Pic: Hisarahlee

Guests and resort hosts are invited to get creative with plastic waste and some of the innovative creations they’ve come up with include surfboards made from recycled polystyrene and Easter eggs for children made from plastic bottle caps.

Soneva Water is the brand’s drinking water purification system and the first solar-powered desalination plant outside of Male. Water is filtered with carbon resin and then goes through a reverse osmosis, mineralisation and sterilisation process, before being dispensed into environmentally-friendly reusable bottles.

Both properties also apply a small carbon levy to all guests to offset both direct and indirect carbon emissions across all Soneva operations.

The funds collected from this levy go into various projects – from building wind turbines in India, planting trees in Northern Thailand, funding fuel-efficient cooking stoves in Myanmar, and supplying safe drinking water to thousands around the world.

Through the Soneva Foundation, the company has funded hundreds of environmentally-focused projects.

Whether they’re overseeing the Soneva forest reforestation project; holding a SLOW LIFE symposia to promote environmental and social collaboration in local communities, or organising a larger annual symposium, which brings together the greatest minds for a partnership on the most pressing issues in the world, the team at Soneva are forever conscious of their footstep.

The Soneva quest isn’t about resting on the company’s laurels; it’s about striving for the only breed of hospitality befitting of our precious planet – perfection.

Soneva forest reforestation project, Northern Thailand
Funding fuel-efficient cooking stoves in Myanmar

Getting to Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in the Maldives: Soneva Jani can be reached by a scenic 45-minute seaplane flight direct from Malé International Airport, a 60-minute speedboat ride from Soneva Fushi, or by a leisurely half-day cruise from Soneva Fushi on board Soneva in Aqua.

Getting to Soneva Kiri in Thailand: From Bangkok, guests take the resort’s private plane from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to Koh Mai Si (Soneva Kiri’s Airport Island), with a flight time of 1 hour and 15 minutes. Then a 5-minute luxury speedboat transfer will take guests to Soneva Kiri’s jetty.

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How can you travel to change the world?

Congratulations! By reading this post and taking some of these insights on board, you’ve already made a difference.

Now you can easily create your impact by sharing your new-found knowledge with other friends who you think would also be interested.

Ultimately, responsible travel comes down to common sense – stay curious, keep yourself up-to-date with the challenges at hand and make yourself accountable for your actions on your travels.