Twenty-five years after Soneva’s first property was unveiled, Founder, CEO and Joint Creative Director Sonu Shivdasani speaks exclusively to The Edition about his and Eva’s ‘spiritual’ connection to the Maldives, and their odyssey across the archipelago.
The constant motion driving cogs in the industrial machine often makes the journey of a hotelier a rather 'wander'-ous one. Since resorts first emerged in the Maldives nearly half a century ago, many notable personalities have graced the hospitality scene, left their mark and moved on from these turquoise horizons to greener pastures.
As such, in a sea of constantly emerging new additions and trends, only an elite few remain on their original pedestal. Impressively, a quarter of a century after their first grand opening, that is certainly the case with Sonu Shivdasani, a pioneer of eco-tourism and the man behind the widely celebrated philosophy of ‘intelligent luxury’.
But this is only one of the numerous ways in which Sonu carved his place in Maldives’ history, and scratches only the barest surface of why, at least in this part of the world, this exceptional businessman needs no introduction.
“We came to the Maldives for the first time in 1980, through a German company and fell in love with the destination. I believe we’ve lived many past lives together - I think one of them was in the Maldives and that’s why we felt a natural intimacy.”
“Those days we were also blown away by the beautiful nature and what you had underwater was incredible.” The Founder, CEO, and joint creative director of Soneva Resorts is as charming and articulate as one would imagine him to be.
Son of the late Indoo Shivdasani, businessman and philanthropist with extensive investments in Nigeria, his affinity for business runs deep. Sonu described the inspiration he found during frequent holidays to the Maldives in the ‘80s with wife Eva Malmström Shivdasani, former Swedish model turned international interior designer and the Creative Director and Conscience for Soneva.
“We felt there was an opportunity to do a couple of things which weren’t there at the time. So firstly, travel and tourism were very much mass-market.”
“It was like one island one tour operator - so, a mass-market experience at the lowest end. Everything came in tins, even vegetables."
“So yes, we felt we could do something that was at a bit of a higher standard.”
“Secondly, we thought what was available wasn’t sensitive to the beautiful environment. Quite often, developers would cut down the vegetation, build the resort and add some landscaping afterwards, which we felt was very odd.”
“Most resorts were saltwater; showers, toilets and so forth all going back to the sea, affecting the water table. On several occasions, buildings were built using corals from the reef."
“It was at that point Eva and I decided we had to do something.”
Nostalgia fills the conversation as he segues into detailing the labour of love that went into the acquisition of Soneva Fushi. It all began in 1988, when a bright-eyed Oxford student clad in jeans met with the country’s Director of Tourism at the small all-encompassing government building next to Nasandhura Hotel in Male’, then a far cry from the bustling city we know today.
Having made several failed bids on islands that were being auctioned off, Sonu describes the turn of events as nothing short of serendipitous when the couple stumbled onto Kunfunadhoo (the island Soneva Fushi is built on) and connected with Ahmed Jalyl, the island’s former sub-lessee.
“Yes, we were very lucky to take over and that it was available. At the time no one had developed out of Baa Atoll. ”
Jet setting while juggling conversation with The Edition reaching a point of conflict, Sonu politely asks for some time to complete his business lounge check-in, explaining, “I’m between flights in the Middle East right now” - proving again that the life of an uber-successful business mogul never stops.
“Those days there were no resorts in outer atolls; there was Kuredu at the time, one or two south of Male’ Atoll. Generally, people outside the Male’ Atoll, especially going out to the Baa Atoll, were struggling because there were no air transfers. Now we have places like Maldivian and TransMaldivian Airways that have solved the issue of domestic travel.”
“Back in the day, it used to be a mass-market destination. People used to laugh about it when we talked about our plans to open a luxury resort here, but of course, now, that’s the norm.”
Punctuating his own introduction, as well as claims made therein towards his acumen and foresight with a flawlessly smooth delivery, Sonu firmly noted, “And Maldives has become an established luxury destination, one of the prime luxury destinations.”
However, when revisiting the past with a heartfelt conservationist, reflecting on such differences cannot be overlooked. As The Edition nudged on, curious to uncover Sonu’s particular views on changes to the environment, he responded, albeit with a touch of heaviness.
“It has, unfortunately, and not for the best.”
Comparing increased levels of light pollution in Baa Atoll, previously “completely dark at night”, Sonu highlighted the development that materialized over the last decade and that continues to take place within the atoll and its natural lands.
“Marine life has changed, unfortunately - first we had the 1998 El Nino which caused the loss of a lot of coral, and then just as things were picking up, we had another one in 2016. The reefs that have been revived haven’t come back to how they were.”
“I think it’s just the immense pressure of development - that’s the shame. I remember when you’d go to a dive point and see a hundred sharks, and today we see much less. It’s really sad.”
“Creativity needs a structure, a guideline,'' said Sonu, analogizing further, “It’s a bit like a bullet train. Without the railway track, all of that energy goes nowhere.”
“Our guiding principle is this idea of intelligent luxury - that is, using the land of origin to try and understand what luxury truly is.”
“See, luxury is a word that’s often been misused. People sometimes refer to objects such as marble or gold as a luxury. But luxury is not about objects, it’s a philosophy; essentially that which is rare, that which is new - but true.”
“The context is rich. So historically when the language of luxury was created, the rich were rural. The gentry would live in the countryside, lots of fresh air, generous open spaces and all that. But today that's the opposite. The rich are now urban.”
“What the rich took for granted in the past is available today as a result of globalisation and the internet revolution”, Sonu offered, adding that, “They live in cities, so the things I mentioned earlier that they once took for granted, are now rare”.
“Space is rare. Fresh air, fresh food are rare. Privacy is a premium as well. These ideas of privacy, fresh air, fresh foods are becoming more and more relevant - I think that in another 25 years, our guiding principle will be even more relevant.”
A note of cheer lilting, he adds, “and with the world becoming more urban, our demographic is set to increase.”
Sonu chuckled and responded that in breaking set standards, challenges are, “of course, to be expected".
“When we started with our concept philosophy, there were a lot of challenges. Now people join us because they share our values; they see the value, the success," he said.
Though several businesses have indulged in ‘green-washing’, Soneva’s genuine commitment to eco-friendly practices and sustainability forward initiatives are well recognized.
“There are still some markets that believe that if it’s sustainable, it can’t be luxurious - especially new markets like China, India.”
“Although we arguably have the largest villas, the luxury aspect is not in how big the villas are. The food is considered some of the best, not only in Maldives but the world. Yet it is how we’ve defined luxury that truly matters; the more training we give our staff, the more engaged they are and the more they deliver.”
Describing ‘sustainability’ as being an integral strand within the company’s DNA, he insisted, “I believe sustainability should have a purpose besides enriching ourselves and our partners. My job as a CEO of the company is to ensure that we have as many engaged guests as we have employees”.
As for their high frequency of repeaters and constant attraction of newcomers - “People understand change is beneficial. People have liked change. Take waste, for example, the bottles that are discarded every day are replaced with glass bottles, crystal jugs, which are sustainable and also look nice. They’re healthier, cheaper, and we’ve saved 80 percent off our cost of sales."
“They do stay with us for a long time. We have appreciation programmes of course, so maybe it’s our policies; people do speak very highly of our food. Maybe it’s about the opportunities we provide; to work with trusted advisors…” he trails off in thought.
“I also personally believe our core philosophy resonates strongly with our hosts, which I believe motivates and energizes them”.
“We have a survey we do, and it’s interesting to see Soneva Fushi, our oldest resort, scoring much higher than the others.”
He humorously recants a recent incident in which one of Soneva Fushi’s freshly hired 'Mr. Friday's (butler) had made a move to steal eggs from a turtle nest, and though traditionally regarded a delicacy, the rest of the resort’s hosts reacted with intense distaste at the attempt to remove the eggs. To them, the Soneva’s ethos had become second nature, reflected in their protective response.
With no small amount of pride, Sonu observes, “It’s very nice that that happens, and I think a lot of our hosts believe in our message - we talk about it all the time.”
“They take these values home as well - we see that even neighbouring islands have adopted similar views. In fact, with a half a million [US dollar] annual budget from Soneva we’ve founded a local charity ‘Namoonaa Baa’, in collaboration with island councils from Maalhos, Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo, an initiative aimed at reducing and eliminating single-use plastics.”
“My passion for sustainability is from being in England in the late '80s, a decade of huge economic growth and I’d see houses in the countryside because of the growth in the economy.”
“In the Maldives in the late '80s, plastic was still rare. It’d be relatively clean. I think that’s where it stems from, reading about it, seeing what it does to the marine life and such in Maldives. Especially coming from where I’m from.”
“Generally, people do think about issues like global warming and plastic in the ocean, so the response has been positive.''
“We’re trying to replace all plastics, but it still exists. We’ve never had plastic straws because it’s unnecessary. We don’t have plastic bags, and we’ve reduced Styrofoam as well. Cling film too, we try to use less of it.”
“We use Styrofoam for insulation. Our building blocks are made from recycled material. We still have storage, for chilled material like fish. What we’re trying to do right now is to ship plastic containers and have them shipped back with the material in them so they’re reusable and there’s not as much waste. I think it’ll even end up cheaper than Styrofoam.”
“Right now we recycle 85 to 90 percent of our waste but we still have spirit bottles and such. We have a state of the art glass factory with glass blowers, so we’re turning liquor bottles into works of great beauty.”
“Then there’s the food waste and cardboard to compost. So there are various things that we’re working on.”
“Well, the main thing we do is to try and repurpose plastic so we’re doing that in a gift type way for our shops, etcetera. One of the things we’re working on is to make swimming shorts out of plastic. At the moment, Parley is shipping out plastic and no one gets any money in the Maldives, it’s just goodwill.”
“Personally, I believe that it might solve the problem. We need to be able to give a financial incentive for people to not throw plastic away and to recycle. I believe there is potential to do well here.”
“I want to get to a stage where we can possibly incentivise fishermen to potentially earn more money fishing out plastic than fish! We could get to a point where we pay a couple of cents for fishermen to pick up half-litre bottles, which when you think about it, a bottle costs less than a dollar, so it’s a good price. I think that’s something we could work on.”
“People don’t like change and they wrongly think it’s a competitive disadvantage,'' he declares with determination, and the hopeful conservationist we’ve gotten to know momentarily takes a backseat to the master innovator that forged thriving businesses in foreign lands.
“We believe it’s an asset. It’s not only bad for the planet, it’s also good for business. There’s a Singapore-based company called Olam that grew over the couple years to become the world’s top food and agri-business. Another is The Siam Cement Public Company Limited, in Thailand, also doing excellent work while reaping rewards.”
“Generally, consumers go for what’s going to be the nicest holiday destination. These days, however, I think that they are keener; they ask more questions. Businesses are going to have to take it on.”
“It’s a bit like global warming. You can’t quite feel it until it’s too late - so the problem for some accomplished businesses is that they’ve missed the boat and customers start moving to other businesses.”
“I think it’s easy to lose these principles as you start off, there’s a lot of pressure and other priorities. So it’s very easy to forget about values. But one realises that one of the greatest things we have at Soneva is our philosophy, which we attribute our success to.”
“We are very committed to the Maldives, so there are many little projects happening at both Soneva Fushi and Jani.”
Excitement rose with his next declaration on both sides of the phone call - “We’re opening a new resort in the near future. The location of our new property is very remote. We also want to start a wellness centre in the next year.”
“I think it’s a difficult one - because the Maldives is certainly vulnerable. So for sure there are challenges,'' he stated, and it becomes clear that the passionate environmental advocate is struggling to stay optimistic amidst the growing ecological degradation.
Highlighting the adaptation of certain species of Red Sea Coral to rising temperatures that have been noted by environmentalists, Sonu expressed hopes that the world may possibly witness other corals similarly acclimatizing.
“We’re working on an initiative to help coral adapt”, Sonu said passionately, "and I think that may potentially be quite successful”.
Whichever way the planet leans, it is certain that Sonu and Eva, along with the eco-conscious brand they brought to life, will remain firmly on its side and that of island nations like the Maldives.
He solidifies this sentiment with a determined declaration, “I have always believed and will continue to prove so - that what is good for the planet is good for business”.