It’s 25 years since Soneva Fushi – the original “no news, no shoes” resort in the Maldives – welcomed its first guests. Sonu Shivdasani, who opened Soneva with his wife Eva back in 1995, tells us how the brand is setting new standards for sustainable, intelligent luxury

What led you and Eva to open Soneva and what was your vision?

I first visited the Maldives with Eva during our honeymoon in 1986, and we fell in love with the place. I had never seen anything quite like it and Eva loved the untouched, simple way of life. 

We decided we wanted to open a resort like no other, whilst ensuring we protect the environment. 

Together we combined our respective experience in management, style and design to develop a resort that would satisfy our desire for a dream destination for those who liked to travel in luxurious style. 

We bought an abandoned resort on the 100-acre Kunfunadhoo Island in the Maldives and set about creating our dream. After considerable effort and some good luck, our first resort, Soneva Fushi, opened in 1995. We were the first luxury resort in the Maldives.

What have been the highlights of the last 25 years?

There are a lot of achievements we are proud and we pioneered over that time. Soneva was the first barefoot luxury resort of its kind, a family of resorts [in the Maldives and Thailand] that has always been ahead of the curve. Soneva is still an innovator and a leader in the world of hospitality when it comes to both guest experiences and sustainability – today Soneva is 100 per cent carbon neutral.

If I were to pick one recent achievement, it would be our Soneva Namoona initiative, which we launched in February – our flagship project that reimagines waste management in the Maldives. We recycle 90 per cent of our waste at Soneva Fushi. 

Some of the key components of our Eco Centro activities are: composting, building block making, the maker space where we recycle plastic, and the Glass Studio. 

In 2008, Soneva began producing its own drinking water and has since been plastic bottle free. All the water that we serve is filtered, mineralised, alkalised and bottled on site in reusable glass bottles. We contribute 50 per cent of the Soneva drinking water revenues to the Soneva Foundation, with the proceeds funding the work of over 500 projects and charities. To date more than 750,000 people worldwide have been given access to clean water as a result of our initiative.

All this is what makes me personally and professionally proud.

How has the Coronavirus pandemic impacted on Soneva?

This quieter period was an opportunity for our ‘hosts’ to improve our properties. Also, at Soneva, we still went ahead with a lot of our charitable initiatives that are being funded by the Soneva Foundation which focuses on change at a level far beyond the direct communities in which our resorts operate – our social and environmental responsibilities are as much global as they are local. We may sometimes fall short of our own high standards, but we are very clear about our responsibilities as custodians of these beautiful places in which we operate.

We have a lot of projects for the future and we are sure that things will get better and we will realise them. I believe that people will prioritise mother nature and will want to minimise their impact on the environment when they travel on holiday.  

How do you think the pandemic will affect luxury travel in general?

The crisis that we are all going through now has allowed many people the opportunity to pause and rethink their values and importantly their priorities. I believe travellers will become more health focused, more aware of nature and more sensitive to the challenges of the planet. I do foresee significant improvements in sustainability. Apart from being good for ecology and society, it also makes good economic sense. 

Furthermore, the needs of our guests have evolved from luxury to meta-luxury. It is no longer about owning luxury items that indicate status like premium whiskey, luxury watches and the latest It handbags. Owning status no longer satisfies high-net-worth individuals. They have an increasing thirst for knowledge and learning. They seek discretion, special access, and even surprise. They want meaning, authenticity, and connection. Meta-luxury is about authentic conviction, experience, focus and depth, discovery and knowledge. With climate change and its effects so apparent, the world is striving for real experiences. Living in the moment is everything.

Are other places in the Maldives following your example?

I have seen a huge growth within the eco-tourism luxury segment in the past few years, not only within the Maldives but also globally. I think this is because owners and directors understand that it makes a lot of business sense to be more focused on sustainability, as the demand for environmentally and socially responsible travel is increasing. I do think that sustainability is here to stay and won’t disappear like other trends sometimes do.

How sustainable can you really be in the Maldives when people have to fly to the other side of the world to get there and so much has to be imported?

Operating in remote locations requires our guests to travel long distances – our guests have little choice but to fly to reach our remote locations. We made the decision to offset the emissions of every guest flight by placing a carbon levy of two per cent on our guests’ bill. This small levy allows the Soneva Foundation to invest in projects that have positive environmental, social and economic impacts. 

What sets Soneva apart from other luxury resorts in the Maldives?

We believe in bringing out the beauty of nature and this sets us apart. Intelligent luxury is about combining the traditional opposites of sustainability and wellness with luxury. We believe that these things actually complement each other.

One does not have to destroy the planet or their body to indulge in luxury. When guests arrive at one of our resorts, we take their shoes and put them in a bag. Having no shoes and no news is very healthy and grounding. It allows our guests to feel at home without the worries and obligations of their everyday lives. In our concept of luxury, a fresh salad from our organic garden becomes more appealing than a Mouton Rothschild and is certainly healthier. Open-air cinemas, an observatory and outdoor showers are all things that urban dwellers, however wealthy they may be, are deprived of. Our bathrooms may not have marble or gold taps, but our guests can take a shower while gazing at a full moon.

When it’s not raining, all of our guests dine outside. One restaurant is actually in the trees, with a zip wire for our waiters to serve guests. Also, our water menu offers six kinds of purified water, each with containing a different healing crystal.

Where do you and Eva like to go on holiday?

We spend a significant amount of time at Soneva Fushi but we do travel a lot.

Eva and I love Florence and our two favourites hotels there are the Lugana and Villa San Michele.. I still remember a lovely lunch that Eva and I had on the terrace of Villa San Michele looking down on Florence on a hazy sunny afternoon with a very nice vintage of Sassicaia in our hands.  

What projects are you currently working on?

We have just completed our New Water Retreats at Soneva Fushi, which have been welcoming guests since September. They have been designed to ensure the utmost privacy for guests, as well as to make the most of the picture-perfect ocean vistas.

Can you tell us a bit about the Soneva private residences? 

In 2011, Soneva became the first company, and is currently the only one, to offer luxury resort real estate for foreigners in the Maldives, at Soneva Fushi. 

Since 2012, our strategy has been to only operate resorts which we own. To manage the level and quality of our brand the way we want to, we pay an extraordinary amount of attention to detail, not least because we want to maintain our dedication to our sustainability goals. 

At Soneva Fushi more than 50 per cent of our clients are repeat guests – some of these repeat guests like the idea of owning homes at their favourite resort. The buyers are Soneva enthusiasts who like what we do. They are sophisticated, successful, independent, urban-dwelling escapists with a strong social conscience. Our clients are the kind of people that use their wealth to establish what they stand for and for self actualisation. Their closets and garages are full and they are looking for interesting, unique life moments.