Wayfarer exclusive: how Soneva has become one of the world’s most exciting and sustainable resort brands

by James Wilkinson

When it comes to sustainability, there is one frontrunner in the world of hotels and resorts and that’s Sonvea, which strives to become better as the years go by. The renowned brand has properties in the Maldives and Thailand and there could be more on the way, Soneva CFO and Deputy CEO Bruce Bromley, tells James Wilkinson in an exclusive global interview.

Bruce, thank you for your time. Tell us about Soneva’s history as a brand.

It all started with Eva and Sonu. They first visited the Maldives in 1987 and fell in love with the place. They decided to open a resort like no other, whilst ensuring ultimate protection of the environment.

As you know, at Soneva we believe that a company must have a clear purpose beyond turning a profit, Sonu often speaks about it. It must serve and contribute to the society in which it operates and should not negatively impact the environment in which it is located.

First resort, Soneva Fushi, opened in 1995 and launched the story of Soneva. It was the first luxury resort in the Maldives, which at the time was a diver’s paradise, and the few hotels that were there had very low rates.

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. The Soneva Villa Ownership programme is also available at Soneva Jani in the Noonu Atoll.

They built one resort after another, and founded Six Senses Resorts and Spas, as well as the Evason brand, which was sold in 2012. The Soneva brand was always premium brand of Six Senses portfolio. Since 2012, our Soneva 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.

Tell us about the new Soneva secret island in the Maldives.

Thirty years in the making, the Soneva Secret resort concept builds upon Soneva’s experience at the forefront of exceptional hospitality, and will set a new, unmatched standard in intuitive, personalised service, exquisite private villas and unspoiled settings, surrounded by nature.

Soneva Secret 2024 features just 14 beach and overwater villas, including lagoon Crusoe Villas, accessible only by boat, and the Castaway, the Maldives’ first floating villa. We are known for our exceptional service, at Soneva Secret we will enhance it with a dedicated Barefoot Guardian and Barefoot Assistant for every villa, curating an very personalised stay and one-of-a-kind, rare experiences for every guest.

The resort’s 14 private chefs, one for each villa, will craft bespoke menus and unique culinary journeys, whether savoured in the privacy and comfort of the villa or enjoyed in nature at the island’s most picturesque spots.

At Soneva Secret 2024, fully bespoke rare experiences are curated for every guest, reconnecting them with the abundant nature that surrounds the island. An underwater haven, the crystal-clear waters are home to colonies of majestic manta rays, pods of curious dolphins and gentle whale sharks, alongside shoals of colourful tropical fish.

Family experiences go far beyond The Den, whether picnics on castaway shores, sunset dolphin cruises, guided snorkeling with the experienced Marine Biologist, or navigating the night skies with exceptionally clear views of the Milky Way with the resident Astronomer.

What are your development plans for more properties going forward?

Our growth strategy encompasses the addition of at least one further property in the Maldives. We have a very strong base in the Maldives with Soneva Fushi, Soneva Jani and, shortly, Soneva Secret, each of which offer very different guest experiences, and we see scope for the addition of further innovative concepts here.

Beyond the Maldives we are looking at geographic and product expansion. On the geography side we are very keen on Japan, where we are looking at opportunities in Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as ski properties and ryokans. In Europe, we are working on a ski opportunity and potential European beach, and also looking at tier one cities.

You might ask why Soneva would be focusing on city centre hotels, and the reason is that our focus is the leisure traveler, and increasingly in these major cities of the world like London, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore and more, all of the growth in demand is coming from the leisure traveller rather than the business traveller, so we see this as a natural avenue for us to develop in.

Let’s talk about sustainability and the importance of this in sensitive locations like you have.

If you asked 100 people who are familiar with Soneva to describe the brand, I am sure that in 100 out of 100 of those descriptions you would hear two words in common “luxury” and “sustainability”. Bringing these apparent opposites together is what creates many of the unique guest experiences that Soneva delivers.

Environmental sustainability has been the foundation of our business since we opened our first resort in the Maldives in 1995. Over the years we have developed and honed our knowledge of the impacts of our activities and found ways to minimize these.

In 1998, for example, we embarked on a process of eliminating single use plastics from our operations, which began with us banning the use of plastic straws on our islands.

In 2008, we took a major step forward in our goals by extending the ban to plastic water bottles, which we replaced with water bottled on site in reusable glass bottles. So far, we estimate that we have avoided around 2 million plastic bottles going to landfill.

Operating sustainably is actually a lot simpler than you would think and is largely about taking linear processes and making them circular, and this is precisely what we did by eliminating the wasting process of importing bottled water and instead making our own in reusable glass bottles.

We took our war on single use plastic outside of our resorts in 2016 when we established Soneva Namoona, a Maldives NGO, which is focused on eliminating single use plastic from local islands in the Maldives.

This has been a very successful initiative and we currently have 22 Namoona islands, with many more looking at entering the programme.

Sustainability initiatives go beyond plastics of course, and we focus on ensuring that we operate in the most sustainable manner possible on our properties. Examples include local sourcing, maximizing the amount of food that we grow in our extensive organic gardens, eliminating chemical pest control on our islands to protect and conserve the natural biodiversity, or the fact that we recycle north of 90% of our waste.

Our sustainability initiatives go by the tag line “Waste to Wealth”, and it’s a tag line that we strongly live up to, and this approach has indeed delivered considerable value to the business.

There are many examples I could quote, but my favourite is the glass factory that we operate at Soneva Fushi. The Glasscycle (see what we did there) up-cycles old wine bottles into stunning works of art which retail for many tens of thousands of dollars.

We have facilities to deal with all manner of waste whether it’s glass, plastic, metal or organic waste. For example, we melt old tin cans and turn them into the beautiful aluminium doorknobs and towel hooks that you will find in our resorts.

Our islands are beautiful natural environments, and a few years back we took the decision to eliminate chemical pest control in favour of sustainable processes. As a result, the mosquito population on our islands collapsed and our pest management costs followed suit. A great example of sustainability thinking improving the guest experience driving the bottom line.

We have recently invested US$ 10 million in solar facilities on our two Maldives resorts which will enable us to cover 50% of our energy requirements from the sun, and dramatically reducing the emissions from diesel generators.

Soneva Secret, our latest Maldives property which debuted in January 2024, is more than 90% carbon free, taking advantage of technologies such as central chiller systems, sitting alongside expansive floating solar plant. The financial payback on these investments is extremely attractive.

A big focus is on climate change, especially for a company which has assets in coastal areas. We’re very much focused on net zero and in 2012 we became a carbon neutral company, taking account of all scopes (1, 2 and 3) of emissions.

Scope 1 measures the direct emissions that occur at our resorts, which is around 20% of our total emissions, while scope 3, which accounts for the remaining 80% of our emissions, measures the emissions that result from our supply chains including importing food and other operational and construction materials, and most importantly, the emissions from the air travel of our guests.

While we are investing in solar power and taking measures to reduce the emissions from our direct activities, our operations, supply chains and guest flights nevertheless result in a significant level of emissions.

We achieve carbon neutrality by employing carbon offsets to deal with whatever emissions we cannot directly address, for example because they sit outside of our direct operations – guest flights are the majority of it.

For a business to be truly sustainable, one cannot have a growth strategy and sustainability strategy. One needs to combine the two ends into a strategy which focuses on sustainable growth.

That is what we have done at Soneva. No sustainable investment is made without an ROI attached to it. That does not mean we put profits ahead of the environment. Indeed, quite the opposite.

We will not operate in a way that goes against our core values, regardless of the profit impact, and at the same time we will not make sustainability investments until the team is able to create a payback mechanism.

This very often requires extreme lateral thinking which drives some incredible innovations that move us forward in both a sustainability context and a business context. Our glass factory being just one of many examples.

How important is it for the hospitality industry as a whole to get right behind sustainability?

It’s not a case of sustainability being “important”, it’s a case of sustainability being an imperative.

Hospitality is a huge resource consumer, and typically tourist resorts are located in developing country destinations far from source markets.

While tourism is good for these developing economies – witness the extraordinary growth in GDP in the Maldives from when the first resort opened there in the early 1970s until today – there is often a huge environmental cost to this development.

With long-haul travel there is, of course, the issue of flight emissions, and then you have all the additional burden of imports of food, water and other consumables. Dealing with the waste produced by tourism is also a huge burden on the host country.

It’s a classic case of the tragedy of the commons and hospitality companies, who are the economic beneficiaries of tourism, must take responsibility for the externalities which they create. Those externalities should not be limited to the direct operations, but also the economic and social impacts up and down our supply chains.

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