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Sonu Shivdasani, founder and CEO of luxury resort brand Soneva.

Interview: Sonu Shivdasani, Founder of Soneva Resorts

Jul 17, 2020 5:50 AM

GOOD FORTUNE HAS its roots in disaster. This saying by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu has been a guiding light during crises for Sonu Shivdasani, founder and CEO of luxury resort brand Soneva. Amid the crisis the hospitality industry is mired in due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this quote is certainly germane.

It’s a difficult period but the important thing is not to lose one’s values and humanity, which is why Mr Shivdasani continues to be committed to the environmental and social responsibilities he embarked on when he opened his first property Soneva Fushi in the Maldives in 1995.

The brand – which also includes Soneva Jani in the Maldives and Soneva Kiri in Thailand – has been described in the media as visionary, having embarked on green practices that were only more recently embraced by hotels and resorts. For instance, Soneva banned plastic straws in 1998.

Since then, it has branched out into an array of other initiatives with far-reaching environmental, social and economic impact under the umbrella of the Soneva Foundation.

These efforts underline Mr Shivdasani’s stance that sustainability complements luxury, and he believes working in harmony with nature is the way forward for hospitality operators. In a post-Covid-19 future, he is hopeful that greater strides will be made in environmental sustainability.

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What differentiates Soneva from other luxury resort offerings?

At our resorts, one does not have to destroy the planet to indulge in luxury. For example, we avoid teak and favour bamboo and eucalyptus – both fast-growing trees we grow in plantations that are just as beautiful as rare materials.

Our philosophy of “Intelligent Luxury” is about understanding what true luxury is. For guests who live in a polluted concrete jungle, a fresh salad from our organic garden is more appealing than a Mouton Rothschild. So are breathing fresh air and enjoying a beautiful view while barefoot. Our bathrooms may not have marble or gold taps, but our guests can take a shower while gazing at a full moon.

And we do not apply a dress code, unlike many of our competitors, so our guests feel at home.

Also, we do not serve imported water. Instead, our water menu offers six kinds of purified water, each with a different healing crystal in it. We provide chocolate rooms that offer fair-trade dark chocolate and biodynamic wines dominate our wine lists.

Soneva has gone the extra mile in its green efforts. Can you tell us more about this?

Twelve years ago, I noticed a huge number of plastic bottles washed up on the beaches at Soneva Fushi. We decided not to point fingers. Instead, we stopped offering branded bottles of water and chose to serve water that’s filtered, mineralised, alkalised and bottled on site in reusable glass bottles.

Today, all the revenue from our water sales go to the Soneva Foundation to fund the work of charities such as Thirst Aid and, more recently, Soneva Namoona. This is a partnership between Soneva Fushi, the three nearby Baa Atoll island communities of Maalhos, Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo – who traditionally consume water from plastic bottles – and the global not-for-profit organisation Common Seas. The goal is to manage waste effectively, reduce the use of single-use plastics and inspire a love for nature.

What is the Soneva Foundation and what are some of its contributions?

The hotel industry benefits the richest at the expense of the poorest, due to our resource- hungry ways. The foundation is the result of us raising capital for good causes – such as our mandatory carbon levy – via tweaks to our business model that would not affect our profitability or image. In 2008, we realised that our approach towards measuring carbon emissions was limited. Under the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, we were measuring only Scopes 1 and 2, and not Scope 3 – the latter covers indirect emissions due to externalities such as guests’ air travel and supplies coming into our resorts. Surprisingly, we discovered that 85 per cent of the carbon emissions at Soneva Fushi was due to Scope 3, which the industry generally does not measure. So, we added a mandatory 2 per cent Environment Levy to offset all our emissions - a relatively small charge that our guests were more than happy to accept. And the rewards have been great.

In 12 years, we have raised about US$7 million (S$9.8 million), which the Soneva Foundation used to fund a reforestation programme in northern Thailand.

Additionally, funds have financed wind power generators in South India and gone towards a commitment to supply 150,000 low-carbon stoves in Myanmar and Darfur. They lower indoor toxic emissions and reduce the back-breaking work borne by women who have to carry firewood. We have also built local schools,conducted eye camps, and taught Maldivian children to swim.

Has the pandemic affected Soneva Foundation’s work?

Soneva Foundation is a UK charity that has money in its bank accounts, so we are still going ahead with a lot of our charitable initiatives, including Soneva Namoona.

What has been the impact of the global pandemic on Soneva villas in the Maldives and Thailand?

We have always operated on the basis that we have no control of the cards with which we are dealt, but we have complete control over how we play the cards. Like many other businesses, this period is very difficult, but the most important thing is that we do not lose our values and our humanity. Each resort is open, although with very few guests in-house, except for Soneva Fushi which is running with about 20 villas occupied. The other resorts have a few guests but we have managed to keep all our hosts employed.

What role does travel play in conservation efforts?

Some places have been overdeveloped for tourism – for instance, the coastal towns in Spain, where foreign developers have built large concrete jungles. Such commerce sees the outflow of earnings at the expense of the locals. To counteract this, PWC has established the Timm framework to measure the social, environmental, tax and economic impact of business activities.

Despite negative cases, I remain a strong advocate of the overall positive impact of travel and the key role it plays in conservation.

Vast tracts of land in South and East Africa would now be farmland if it were not for the conservation efforts of the many lodges and camps whose tourists indirectly fund those efforts. Five years ago, President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon transferred 11 million hectares of land from timber concessions and mining concessions to a national park to attract tourists.

Closer to home, the government of the Maldives banned the fishing of both sharks and turtles. Part of the Maldives Baa Atoll, where one of our resorts is located, is also recognised as a Unesco Biosphere.

It will be vital for travel and tourism to have a net positive contribution to the environment, as well as the community, for this industry – which has been my life for the last 30 years – to survive in a post-Covid-19 era.

This article originally appeared in the July issue of The Peak magazine. To read more, go to