While sustainable living has been enjoying something of an enlivened renaissance, the imagery associated with such lifestyles is still reminiscent of its halcyon days in the 60s. Anything that comes with the “eco” suffix usually brings to mind monastic hippies and idealistic philosophers in most people. Eco-tourism on the other hand, represents a vast changing landscape especially in the luxury department. Lavish vacations may still be a mainstay, but they’re no longer as wasteful as they used to be. Organisations like Soneva are reshaping the luxury travel industry to bear a more accurate reflection of the key concerns of today’s world, while simultaneously channelling their resources towards helping communities and the environments they inhabit. We managed to grab a quick word with Arnfinn Oines, who oversees the responsible business practices at Soneva as Social & Environmental Conscience, to learn more about Soneva’s efforts.
1. Tell us a little bit about Soneva.
Soneva, the world’s leading sustainable luxury resort operator established in 1995, is built on the foundation that a business must exist for a greater purpose than just shareholder returns. It comprises Soneva Fushi and Soneva Jani in the Maldives and Soneva Kiri in Thailand. Soneva is headquartered in Bangkok, Thailand.
Soneva accommodates 80,000 guest nights or 25,000 room nights per year. Our distribution channels are tour operators and wholesalers. Soneva Fushi achieves 50% repeat business which is a testimony to the quality of our service and experience.
Our founders Sonu and Eva Shivdasani believe in the natural excellence in everything we do, from delivering the ultimate in guest experience to providing energy to the rural poor in Myanmar via the Soneva Foundation. Their vision is supported by the senior management including the CFO and Marketing Director, as well as the 900 hosts (employees) working for the company.
2. What exactly is “intelligent luxury”?
Intelligent luxury is our guiding principal, as we question and challenge the definition of luxury for the wealthy today. In the past, the wealthy were rural landed gentry and the language of luxury was that which was rare for them: dressing up, four-piece bands, gold, crystal chandeliers… because that offered them a change from their daily life which had more to do with nature, space and tranquillity. Today it is the other way around: the wealthy live in their air-conditioned urban boxes, get around in their flashy sports cars, eat in designer restaurants with signature imported foods cooked by celebrity chefs, etc. Those things are no longer rare. They have become common place for the modern wealthy, global citizen. Our theory is that a new luxury is emerging based on what is now missing in everyday life: nature, sustainability and good health. This is why our resorts win so many awards and have been so successful over the years.
3. What are some of the policies you’ve seen that have had the most impact on the community in terms of improving quality of life?
We constantly make tweaks to our business model that are good both for from and environmental, social and economic angle. Here are two examples:
In 2008, we added a mandatory 2% environmental levy to guest bills to offset travel emissions, which have raised $7m for the Soneva Foundation. We have invested in carbon mitigating projects that to date have mitigated 500,000 tonnes CO2 and improved the lives of more than 230,000. Our direct benefit is that Soneva is carbon neutral including guest air travel. We also improve the disposable income and health to rural people in Myanmar. The social value of the first Gold Standard certified carbon programme in Myanmar is US$14 million.
We also banned imported bottled water in 2008 and bottle our own Soneva Drinking Water on site. As a result, 1.5 million plastic bottles have been rerouted from landfill and we have stopped the practice of shipping water bottles around the world. We have donated a significant portion of our water revenue to give over 750,000 people access to safe drinking water. We have done this without sacrificing profits, as our expenditure on water has gone down significantly.
4. The Soneva Total Impact Assessment occupies a unique space in the tourism landscape. How has it allowed Soneva to become more efficient over the years?
The Soneva Total Impact Assessment (TIA) has given us a birds-eye view of our business impacts. The TIA measures our impact on society. This includes direct impacts at our resorts and indirect impacts via our supply chain and guest air travel. The TIA allows us to take a “planetary boundaries” view of all our social and environmental impacts – both “gives” and “takes”. I am thrilled to say that our net impact on society is a positive one. In 2017, we measured it to be about US$46 million.
It has allowed us to understand which initiatives had more impact and where our shortcomings lie. This has enabled us to prioritise areas of focus.
5. Do any of Soneva’s community initiatives stand out as your favourites?
The Myanmar Stoves Campaign is a favourite as it ticks all the right boxes when it comes to sustainability. It had a massive impact on the environment and carried positive social and economic changes.
If I were to mention another, it would have to be the Soneva Ocean Stewardship programme. It is remarkable how a fear of water prevents many children in coastal communities from learning to swim. Following the 2013 SLOW LIFE Symposium, Soneva Fushi in the Maldives established the Soneva Ocean Stewardship programme with neighbouring islands. By teaching children to swim, we hope that they will learn to love their ocean, and when they love it, they are more likely to protect it. We have combined this with fun activities such as swimming competitions, water festivals and Soneva Pro Surfer completion to develop the love of the ocean. Combined with our Soneva Eco Camps where we teach environmental education on a practical level, we can see a shift in attitude toward the environment. The kids are becoming stewards of the very oceans they reside by.
6. What is the SLOW LIFE Symposium about and how is it linked to the Soneva Dialogue?
We have convened some of the world’s greatest minds across science, business, philanthropy and policy at our SLOW LIFE Symposium. Described by one of our participants as a “laboratory of intent”, we provide leaders with the time and space to address environmental challenges and to create tangible, collaborative solutions. The Soneva Dialogue, which in 2016 brought together eight CEOs from the biggest fishing companies at Soneva Fushi to form the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship initiative, was an initiative that arose out of the SLOW LIFE Symposium. The Soneva Dialogue was the first event of what has become the Keystone Dialogue initiative.
7. Any tips on how tourists can be more environmentally conscious when they’re overseas?
A good starting point is to choose an accommodation that is serious about protecting the environment. Furthermore, you can also make sure you are not unnecessarily wasteful. Turn off the AC and lights when you exit your room. Use towels and bed sheets more than once. Avoid single-use plastics such as bottles and straws. If there are any activities that support a good cause, make sure to support it. Also, it is always good to choose something that is locally sourced.
8. Are there any lessons from Soneva that can be applied to living at home?
Absolutely. For those who are not lucky enough to have clean drinking water from the tap, get a water filter installed to eliminate the use of plastic bottles. Speaking more generally, focus on experiences rather than material possessions. It will make you happier and requires fewer resources from the planet. Separate and recycle your waste. Use rechargeable batteries rather than single use. Buy local food. Focus on a plant-based diet as it is good for both your health and the planet’s. It all boils down to just changing your habits step by step.
9. What’s on the horizon for you and Soneva?
We are about to launch an exciting social media campaign that will focus on selling the carbon credits generated from the Myanmar Stoves Campaign. It is a totally new concept which we are excited to launch. We are planning to substantially extend the solar PV plant at Soneva Fushi as well as perform an installation at Soneva Jain. These will have a battery back-up to allow us to completely turn off the generators during the day. Next year, we will extend Soneva Jani, which has been a remarkable success since its opening last year. We also have a couple more resort concepts in stall for the Maldives. Such exciting times ahead!