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Soneva Fushi - A Luxury & Sustainable Model for the Maldives

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Soneva Fushi was the first resort in the Maldives to combine luxury with an environmentally-friendly way of operating. It opened in 1995 on the island of Kunfunadhoo in Baa Atoll at a time when sustainability was an unheard of concept. The hotel was the idea of Eva and Sonu Shivdasani and went on to be the template of a successful international chain of ethically aware luxury hotels. Today the couple concentrate on the original resort and another just opened in the Maldives plus a similar hotel in Thailand.

Soneva Fushi still sets the benchmark on how to run a first class, environmentally sensitive resort. Just one of the many examples of the green ethos running through the business is its vegetable garden.The island grows its own cabbages, cucumbers, pumpkins, tomatoes, watermelons, aubergines, bitter gourds, bananas, watercress, chilli, lettuces and spinach. The staff have also built ‘caves’ in which to grow oyster mushrooms. One of its keys to gardening success was in identifying drought-resistant varieties of vegetables and acclimating them to the local environment. Pest management and weeding are all done by hand, without the use of pesticides. 

An arid sand and limestone plot was transformed by making topsoil by adding organic food waste to the alkaline soil and mixing in mulch derived from wood-chips from tree management and jungle-clearing. The agriculture has been so successful that Soneva now sells its excess vegetables and compost-derived topsoil to other local islands and resorts.

Since most fruits and vegetables served in the Maldives come from abroad and from agrochemical farms, this local, sustainable, agriculture success story could be a way forward for the Maldives. But, obviously, it is a matter of scale. Soneva Fushi caters for 57 villas and a few private residences. Some of the new giant resorts being suggested are as big as 350 rooms – it would need a very large island to produce enough crops to make a resort of that scale self-sufficient. 

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One of the gardeners in the resorts vegetable garden

To be sustainable you have to work within available natural resources and a resort such as Soneva Fushi is an indication of what would be an achievable scale for the Maldives.

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The Soneva-in-Aqau

Everywhere you look on the resort you find another example of what can be achieved. Last year the resort launched its own luxury yacht, the Soneva-in-Aqua which can take parties of up to six guests on private cruises. Besides all the gimmicks and pampering such as a glass-bottomed Jacuzzi in the main suite and a retractable dive deck at the stern, this modern take on a Chinese Junk, is primarily powered by sail and solar power. Food waste is returned to Soneva Fushi’s recycling centre for composting. Drinking water is created through reverse osmosis and filtered and served in glass containers – there are no plastic bottles for one-time use to be found anywhere on a Soneva property. 

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Being pampered aboard the Soneva-in-Aqua

The groups total carbon footprint across its hotels was 33,714 tonnes of CO2 in 2015-16. Only 20 per cent of those emissions came from energy consumption, which is the figure typically quoted by companies when measuring carbon footprint. Sixty-eight per cent of the emissions came from guest air travel. To counter such emissions Soneva has set up an environmental fund.

A levy of two per cent of room revenue is added to each guest’s stay, which has raised $6.2 million to date. The Soneva Foundation invests these funds in projects that have a positive environmental, social and economic impact, and importantly, offset carbon emissions from resort activities and guest flights. It has implemented and initiated projects that will mitigate around one million tonnes CO2 over the next seven years.

Soneva shows what can be done if you start from a premise of sustainability. By the wildest stretch of the imagination, it is impossible to conceive that the dramatic growth of tourism planned in the Maldives, if realised, could be built without serious impacts on the local environment nor it is possible to argue such development could be sustainable.

Soneva does show that even the most luxurious type of tourism, if matched to the resources of the local environment and it it is of an appropriate scale, does not have to an environmental disaster.

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