The pioneer of sustainability in the Maldives’ hospitality landscape, Soneva is celebrating 25 years in 2020.We spoke to the Founder, CEO, and Joint Creative Director Sonu Shivdasani to find out how the brand’s resorts in the archipelago have adapted to the pandemic. By Sumeet Keswani
When did you start welcoming guests at Soneva again?
When the borders closed near the end of March, many families decided to stay back in the Maldives and a few resorts shut down. So, we had around 70 guests through April and May at Soneva Fushi. By July 15, the borders reopened. We didn’t have guests for just two weeks at Soneva Fushi, and for two months at Soneva Jani.
What measures have you put in place to keep people safe?
Even if our hosts (Soneva’s preferred term for ‘employees’) come from a COVID-free island in the Maldives, we test them on arrival, and again after a week. Until the second test, they must wear a mask. Foreign hosts must take both these tests and isolate for the first week. After the second test, they can interact with guests but they have to wear a mask until the third test happens. The guests are tested on arrival and get their results within six to 12 hours. Until then, they must isolate in their own villa. After a negative result, they can walk around the island freely. Our guests love that they can walk around carefree because everyone is being tested. They don’t feel obliged to wear a mask. Also, most of our experiences are in the open air and the climate is mild. We know from the United States’ National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) that the half-life of the virus in our climate—with temperature around 90°F and humidity around 80 per cent—is one hour.
What happens if one of your guests tests positive for COVID-19?
We’ve had that at both our resorts. The Maldives government is following the guidelines set forth by CDC—the person who tests positive must isolate for 14 days. We do take a test after seven days, and if the guest tests negative, they can walk around. The guests don’t have to have a negative result after 14 days of isolation.
What are the facilities for sick guests?
The first night is charged at half rate for all guests. If a person tests positive, there’s no room charge for the isolation period. Our lead-in villas are 300 square metres, and you’ve got a private pool and private beach. So it’s not that constrained. We also give them credit to use for extra spending or a future stay. We feed our sick guests remedies from an Ayurvedic centre at Soneva Jani. We also offer immunity boosters— ginger, turmeric, cumin— and plant-based food. Just in case they get worse, there’s plenty of medical facilities in the Maldives. An islet located five minutes away has an ICU unit with 20 beds that haven’t been used so far.
How have guests reacted to the situation?
We’ve noticed that guests are interacting with one another more than before, because they’ve been starved of that experience. We organised a lunch for around 12 guests after the borders opened, and the lunch went from 2.30 pm to 8 pm!
How have the pandemic’s demands affected your sustainability practices?
We have a glass factory that processes waste from champagne and wine bottles. Glassblowers create beautiful glassware and also teach the craft to guests. We want to do the same to plastic. We’ve been using paper masks, with plastic present just in the straps. We have a plastic artist coming in April 2021, and we’re setting up the factory until then. Our initiative, Soneva Namoona Baa, has three pillars. The first is Reduce—we’ve set up a water bottling plant that has prevented 80,000 plastic bottles. The second is Recycle—at Soneva Fushi we recycle 90 per cent of our waste, and we’ve set up a waste-to-wealth centre on an island that has become the first one in the country to ban open burning. We converted an open burning pit into a cricket field in January. The third pillar is Inspire— we want to encourage the locals to swim, surf, snorkel, etc.
We’ve heard buzz about a novel approach to mosquito elimination.
I’m a big fan of author Janine Benyus and her concept of biomimicry. Last summer, we decided we had had enough of chemical fogging—it was ineffective towards mosquitoes and was killing beneficial insects (when we stopped the fogging, bees, wasps, and dragonflies came back!). For the mosquitoes, we created traps with black buckets, nets, and a product made by a Dutch entomologist. The product has lactic acid and smells like a used boxing glove. We also use sugar and baking powder to create CO2, so these traps mimic humans. With 500 of these traps, one species of mosquitoes has been reduced by 98 per cent and another by 95 per cent at Soneva Fushi. To get to zero mosquitoes, we’re keen on following a method that involves the Wolbachia bacteria, which renders the male mosquito impotent.
Soneva Fushi launched overwater villas this October, after 25 years. What took you so long?
Our thought was that Soneva Fushi was all about the jungle and the beach. But then,
the market changed. Guests from India, China, and the GCC wanted overwater retreats. So, we developed eight of them—the largest one- and two-bedroom water retreats in the world (585 sq m and 857 sq m, respectively). They have our signature details, like a water slide going from the top into the sea, the push of a button sliding the roof open, water gardens, etc.
What’s been your biggest takeaway from 2020?
Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher, said ‘Good fortune has its roots in disaster’. Five years from now, you’ll find that our business and where we derive our revenues will differ substantially from now, and a lot of those ideas will have germinated during this crisis.