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Founder of Soneva Sonu Shivdasani reflects on the pandemic, and how to move forward

There are few hospitality brands that stand out so much in the mind when we think of sustainability like Soneva. 

With three ultra-luxe properties across Asia — one of which is our beloved Soneva Fushi in the Maldives, no less — Soneva has long associated itself with wholesome living and being, in a way that is mindful and kind to the earth

No time like the present for such trains of thought, founder and CEO of Soneva Sonu Shivdasani has recently shared a thought-provoking opinion piece, explaining his view on the effect of the pandemic on industry, planet, and individual, from an angle of sustainability. Scroll ahead for an interesting insight from a true industry heavyweight with much heart. We’ve shortened the piece for clarity and for key takeaway points. 

[All images courtesy of Soneva]

Sonu Shivdasani

“Good Fortune has its roots in Disaster”

Sonu begins with this quote by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, and links it to his personal experience in battling cancer. He recalls being diagnosed with stage 4 Lymphoma, and what this meant in the bigger picture — especially mentally. 

“The doctor asked me whether I understood the gravity of the situation. I maintained a brave face and just focused on documenting what he said and thinking of further questions that I would need answers to. However, once I had left the clinic, and was comfortably seated in the taxi home, I could not hold it anymore and broke into tears.”

“The first three weeks after the diagnosis was a difficult time. There was a lot of uncertainty. I felt that the ground had been removed from below me. However, this ‘Cancer Crisis’ gave me the opportunity to pause on everything else. I emerged from this traumatic three weeks with a clear action plan, and was considerably wiser about health and wellness.”

“Now, 18 months later, I realise that I was crying about the loss of the status quo. My usual reality of how I would live, eat and generally exist, was undermined by this illness, and would never return. During those three weeks, I grieved the loss of my usual daily reality. I realised how my lifestyle and the way I lived needed to change.”

Sonu then outlines how he gave up his beloved guilty pleasures, from red meat to ice cream, and created a new lifestyle for himself that he enjoyed. 

“To some extent, many of us in the midst of the current Coronovirus crisis are adjusting to a new reality and going through a similar grief cycle. There is a hollow emptiness, an uncomfortable feeling. We miss our daily routine that we can no longer enjoy because of this lockdown. In a way, we are grieving the loss of the way we used to live in the past.

Soneva Fushi
Soneva Fushi

The current climate

From his own ‘Cancer Crisis’ to the climate crisis that the world is facing, Sonu explains the gravity of the situation, before posing a harkening question. 

“This pandemic will end but the important question is whether the bond we have with the way we live and our daily reality has been sufficiently broken, and whether we can attach ourselves to a new reality and a new way of doing things; or if we will just go back to our old ways.”

Sonu and Eva Shivdasani

Look back before you look forward

To expand further on this, Sonu reflects and brings us to look back at our past behaviour and to analyse it to shape a better future. Only through introspection can we shape a better, new reality. This is where the founder draws on the Soneva brand as an example. 

“At Soneva, our core purpose is engaging and imaginative SLOWLIFE. So, being sustainable is part of our DNA, and we strive to limit the negative environmental impact of our activities – something which is both difficult as well as critical for a company which operates resorts in remote places of pristine, natural beauty.”

Yet whilst it is easy for the CEO of a luxury hotel chain to wax poetic about sustainability, Sonu convinces us. 

The battle against plastic bottle

“Twelve years ago, I noticed a huge number of plastic water bottles washed up on our beaches at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives. We decided not to point fingers at those who were allowing their water bottles to spoil our oceans as we were still serving bottled water in our resort and were therefore still part of the problem. So we took the decision to stop offering branded bottle water, and instead serve filtered, mineralised, alkalised, and bottled-on-site water in reusable glass bottles. Today, all the revenues from our water sales go to the Soneva Foundation to fund the work of charities such as Water Charity and Thirst Aid, and more recently, Soneva Namoona.”

“In the middle of 2019, we achieved a first, we installed the first glass water bottling centre on a regional island.  Traditionally, the water consumed in restaurants, guest houses and generally by the public on islands is from plastic bottles from the water bottling company in Male, the capital of the Maldives. Soneva Namoona Water filters and mineralizes the desalinated island water and then places it in sterilized glass water bottles.  When the bottles are returned, the user achieves a 20% saving on their water purchase. So, they are financially better off. As I write, Soneva Namoona water has sold the equivalent of, and avoided 60,000 plastic bottles.”

The fight against burning garbage

“In February 2020, we celebrated another Maldives’ first: Maalhos became the first island in the country to end the practice of burning its garbage in open bonfires. This was made possible by the opening of the island’s Eco Centro waste to wealth centre, funded by Soneva and modelled on Soneva Fushi’s own Eco Centro.”

Soneva Fushi
Soneva Fushi

What post COVID-19 means for travellers

“In a post COVID-19 world, consumers will be more conscious of the impact that they will have on both nature and the communities which they visit.”

“I have to specifically mention air travel which, while it is a big part of an individual’s ecological footprint, is a very small contributor to greenhouse gases and its contribution is less than the negative impact of the beef and dairy industry.”

“Our chefs have, as one of their key performance indicators, the reduction of sugar, dairy, white flour, beef in our menus. Beef consumption has reduced by 75%. Dairy consumption has reduced considerably as well. It is our goal to bring the consumption of these two ingredients almost to zero. Apart from being good for our guests’ health, this approach has also been very good for the environment. After the built environment, the dairy and beef environment are the next biggest contributor to greenhouse gases.”

Soneva Fushi
Soneva Fushi

Natural inspiration

Whilst there are many ways to approach a post COVID-19 world, Sonu banks on nature and an attention to a happy co-living with it. Drawing inspiration from natural processes, the story he then tells about the eradication of mosquitoes at Soneva Fushi is remarkable. 

“It is my hope that in a post-COVID-19 era, we will become more sensitive to nature’s innovations. We will try to work in harmony with nature rather than try to battle it. It’s my opinion that this terrible virus came about because we ignored nature’s laws.”

“For example, Leonardo Da Vinci imagined the first helicopter by closely observing the behaviour of the Hummingbird. It was Leonardo’s drawings that helped Igor Sikorsky in his invention of the first helicopter. So, the helicopter is the result of biomimicry.”

The extinction of mosquitoes at Soneva Fushi

“In the middle of last year at Soneva Fushi, we set a target to become the first island in the Maldives to be completely mosquito free. We decided to trap mosquitoes by studying their habits and creating a natural trap. We have installed 500 buckets throughout the island. In each bucket is a little swab that mimics human sweat and the smell of lactic acid. We then mix sugar and baking soda and create a pump system to generate CO2. So, these traps smell and breathe like a human being. The mosquitoes are lured into the net and then cannot escape. 

We started this initiative in June 2019 and ended our contract with Rentokil, our pest-control operator. No more spraying. Instead we would use only these buckets. In the first days of implementing this, our 500 buckets caught about 9000 mosquitoes a day, on average 20 mosquitoes per bucket. The catch on the island now has reduced to low double digits. We have two mosquitoes on the island, the Aedes and the Culex. The Culex is nearly extinct and we hope that the Aedes will soon follow. It is my hope that this will be a perfect example of how, by closely following and understanding the laws of nature, and innovating around it, we can find effective solutions.”

Sonu and Eva Shivdasani

A lost opportunity

“As we recover and journey out of this crisis, we will reach a fork in the road. I do hope that we will clearly know where we want to go.

The current global pandemic has highlighted how interconnected we are, and how important it is that as humanity on planet earth, we break through our national boundaries and collaborate together in order to preserve life on earth as we know it. 

If we do not change, and just go back to business as usual after this crisis, it will be a sad, lost opportunity. And, all the suffering that we have been through over these past months will have been for nothing.”


Founder of Soneva Sonu Shivdasani reflects on the pandemic, and how to move forward

Lisa Gries

Creative Content Director, Bangkok

Lisa is the Creative Content Director at Lifestyle Asia Thailand. When she’s not knees-deep in SEO analysis or editorial calendars, you’ll likely find her in downward-facing dog at the yoga studio, or immersed in conversation at a secret bar in China town. Lisa writes mostly on dining, travel, and pop-culture, and is a huge fan of soup dumplings, Riesling, and power napping — in exactly that order.

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