Soneva Resorts - Sustainability at the core of everything

Case study: How Sovena resort became one of the leading sustainable resort chains in the world.

Sustainable Luxury - from utopia to reality

Soneva is a resort chain founded in 1995 by Eva and Sonu Shivdasani in the beautiful natural setting of the Maldives. Initially planned as a single resort unit, the resort eventually became one of the leading sustainable resort chains in the world.

Sustainable Luxury - from utopia to reality

Soneva is a resort chain founded in 1995 by Eva and Sonu Shivdasani in the beautiful natural setting of the Maldives. Initially planned as a single resort unit, the resort eventually became one of the leading sustainable resort chains in the world.

As opposed to other resorts, the approach of Soneva has been pretty unique from the start. Aware of the environmental and social impacts of tourism on fragile environments and local communities, the founders have managed to create a hospitality concept that is not only able to reduce negative impacts but that is fostering positive growth and sustainable development.

Luxury and sustainability at first glance might look impossible to conceal: luxury experiences often require irresponsible and unnecessary sourcing of natural resources, exploiting of local communities and in general, the establishment of vicious economic circles in which the locals have a lot to lose and very little to gain.

By considering sustainability the core of every choice they make, the resort created a virtuous model that fosters community development, environmental protection and considers shareholder returns, a concept defined by Soneva as 'Intelligent Luxury'. The resort chain represents an exceptional example of a best practice every hospitality business should follow.

Addressing impact and building transparency

Starting by banning plastic straws already in 1998, the sustainable strategy of Soneva has evolved over the years to embrace every aspect of sustainability. At the core of the sustainable strategy lies the Soneva Foundation, responsible for monitoring the impacts of the resort's activities and developing sustainable projects. Alongside this, the resort is using the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) developed by the UN as a framework to develop their strategy.

Both the foundation and the adoption of the sustainable goals are extremely effective tools not only to create a more sustainable business model but to increase the company's transparency towards its stakeholders, fostering stronger community trust and enhanced customer loyalty.

The Soneva Foundation

The idea of the foundation was born in 2008 when the management realised the environmental impacts of the resorts were mostly caused by indirect emissions such as guest air travels. To offset these emissions the resort introduced an environmental tax of 2% on every guest stay, and these funds are invested by the foundation in initiatives that have a positive environmental impact. For example, the foundation has developed the Soneva Forest Restoration Project, planting more than 500,000 trees in northern Thailand, or the Myanmar Stoves Campaign, helping to save 2.5 tonnes of wood every year, reducing local air pollution by 80%.

Soneva is built on the belief that a business must exist for a greater purpose than shareholder returns - Soneva Foundation

The foundation is not only committed to fighting negative environmental impacts but also to reduce social and economic impacts too. Over the years, the foundation has developed programmes to help local communities around the world, such as the 'Clean Water Project', which helps people get access to safe and clean drinking water in the villages of Senegal or 'Care for Children' providing foster care for orphaned children.

Source: Soneva Foundation

The Soneva Total Impact Assessment

The role of the foundation is not only limited to promoting sustainable initiatives but to measure every impact coming from all initiatives within Soneva. For this, the foundation has developed an in-house reporting tool, the Soneva Total Impact Assessment (TIA), which measures both the direct impacts of the resort as well as indirect impacts related to the supply chain and visitor's travel.

To ensure a 100% transparent approach the foundation releases annual reports showing impacts of all the initiatives connected with the resorts and the foundation's projects. By putting in place a solid reporting and measuring system, Soneva is able to implement better decision-making on allocating resources and changing strategies.

Soneva Total Impact Assessment 2018, from sonevachangemakers.com

The transparent approach of Soneva doesn't only demonstrate how rigorous reporting can be fundamental to drive more sustainable-driven decisions but should make businesses aware of the great possibilities this strategy offers in terms of branding and communication. Building a sustainable and transparent brand around your business, showing impacts and reporting initiatives is, in fact, a great tool to enhance customer loyalty and trust, an aspect that is as important for your business as it is sustainability.

Integrating Sustainable Development Goals

Whilst the Total Impact Assessment allows Soneva to measure impacts and evaluate the effectiveness of campaigns, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are used to guide the sustainable strategy of the resort.

The different goals are taken into consideration whilst developing every project and major resort initiative. For example, the Soneva Namoona project, which aims to reduce plastic use, and foster recycling, ocean stewardship and education, was developed around goal 4, 6, 11, 12 and 14, wether the Myanmar Stoves Campaign focuses on goals 1, 3, 8, 13, and 15.

The sustainable development goals are also taken into consideration whilst taking small concrete actions. For example, plastic bottles are banned in all resorts, and Soneva produces its own drinking water on site. Renewable energy is also part of the strategy, as the resort is producing 956,945 kWh of solar power per year, directly supplied to the resorts.

Source: oneva brochure

Adopting sustainable development goals as guidelines to develop better tourism strategies is not something completely new, as the SDGs were developed by the UN in 2015, and many businesses and organisations have adopted the goals to develop their strategies. On the other side, it is true that there is still a lot to be done, especially in the hospitality sector, as many businesses still struggle to see the long-term benefits of a sustainable strategy. Soneva has demonstrated that sustainability is not only a duty but could be a true competitive advantage and a long term investment.

People and local community: taking bold actions

Sustainability doesn't only mean protecting the environment or using renewable energies, but also and most importantly taking care of the well being of the local community. Too often, tourism is associated with community segregation and the exploitation of the local workforce, with low wages, strenuous working shifts and very little to none development opportunities.

Aware of this, and with the Sustainable Development Goals clear in mind, Soneva has developed a model that put the local community at the centre, investing in their capabilities, potential and uniqueness. In this way, people can become real 'changemakers'

Source: Soneva Changemakers

Investing in Human Capital and Community

Soneva believes so strongly in its people that has developed a system that allows them to measure the real value of the jobs they create. In fact, a job doesn't only provide locals with a salary, but impacts the way they work, live and bring value to their community.

Creating human capital means measuring the real value provided by a job, which includes training, a positive and fair working environment and great company values. Human capital also includes the positive externalities connected to jobs, such as the improvement of the life of the community, social integration, inclusiveness and better living conditions.

We believe that the success and profitability of a company depends on how well human resources are managed - Soneva-SDG-Brochure

Alongside with this philosophy, Soneva has developed initiatives that foster inclusiveness and job creation, like the Junior Host Programme, which offers employment opportunities to vulnerable young adults, helping them to gain experience within the hospitality industry.

People as Changemakers

Even of the term 'Human Capital' has been developed by Soneva to measure the real value of jobs when referring to its employees, the company prefers to address them with a more meaningful term. For the company, its people are true 'Changemakers': every host, employee and member of the local community involved in their initiatives is seen as a person whose capabilities, passion and commitment are contributing to the positive growth of the local ecosystem.

The case of Soneva gives every business the opportunity to reflect on the importance of building a strong company culture around people. Employees are not only considered as a mere workforce but as persons with their own individualities and capabilities, who can be a driving force for both the company and the local community.

Thriving through the 'new normal'

The pandemic has disrupted the whole travel and tourism industry, with businesses across the world suffering major revenue losses that might be impossible to cover. Many businesses survived, many others have shut, others instead have managed to pivot and succeed.

Despite Soneva's only source of revenue being international tourists, the resort chain represents a successful case of a business thriving through the pandemic by blending extremely effective safety protocols and an extraordinary guest experience.

Turning weaknesses into strengths

Soneva resorts are located in the Maldives, some of the most beautiful and unspoiled islands in the world, far from any modern civilisation. The islands can be reached only by plane, making them extremely dependent on international tourists. With the outbreak of the pandemic and the implementation of travel restrictions, the resort seemed to be condemned to cease all activities, at least for 2020.

Having an apparently impossible problem to solve didn't stop Soneva from trying to find a solution. The resort chain has managed to turn a weakness into an advantage: by leveraging on the unique peculiarities of its position and offer, the resort not only managed to survive but to thrive and succeed.

In particular, the isolated position of the resort was turned into a competitive advantage and unique selling proposition: with all resorts situated on private islands, completely isolated from the outer world, Soneva has succeeded in turning them into a 100% covid-safe environments.

New protocols, same experience

The success of this approach consisted of the integration of rigorous protocolswith an excellent guest experience, making guests feel nothing has changed from the pre-pandemic world. The goal is to make the resorts safe environments where every guest can truly relax and engage with fellow travellers and hosts.

While there will be small changes to what would normally happen during your stay with us, on the most part things will remain the same. Which is exactly how we want it to be - Soneva Website

Upon arrival, guests are escorted to their villas where they get tested and required to stay for 24 hours, that is until the test is negative. To compensate for the inconvenience, Soneva gives every guest a voucher that can be used to purchase food, drinks, in-room services and experiences.

After testing negative, guests receive a warm welcome from hosts in their villas. In case of a positive test, Soneva removes the daily room rate from the guest's bill for the following 14 days of isolation, charging only meals and incidentals, and guests are still free to use all the facilities of the villa, including access to the private beach and surrounding areas.

Ensuring a covid-free resort also means that it is possible for guests who test negative to engage with other guest and hosts in a safe environment. This is fundamental to enhance the visitor experience and helps everyone enjoy a more relaxed and worry-free experience.


By putting in place a system that removes possible hassles by upgrading the visitor experience, Senova ensures every guest can enjoy an amazing stay, regardless of the results of the test.

The 'intelligent luxury' is a concept that Soneva has always promoted, and that finds its perfect fit in the post-pandemic world. The resort is an exceptional example of how a to tackle the pandemic by leveraging on a unique location, efficient safety protocols and extraordinary guest experiences.

Key Takeaways

Published on:
May 2020
About the contributor