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Soneva boss reveals lockdown life in Maldives

Sonu Shivdasani, founder of luxe hospitality group Soneva, reveals how he's been filling time during lockdown in the Maldives. By Carolynne Dear.

Island life - Sonu Shivdasani has spent the pandemic cast away at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives.

He’s a way behind Robinson Crusoe, but Sonu Shivdasani has so far clocked up three months on a desert island and counting.

“I don’t think I’ll make 28 years,” he says. “But I will be here until the end of August.”

Shivdasani, founder and chief executive officer of luxury resort brand Soneva, is marooned, in the nicest possible way, at Soneva Fushi, one of his Maldivian properties. In March, the Maldives closed its borders, leaving Shivdasani - and one holidaying family - in residence.

He says he’s surprised by how much he’s relaxed into his new life. “I’m an unlikely convert to Zoom,” he admits. “I’ve been taken aback by how effective it is. We had a meeting with our architects the other day, and it was great to be able to study the designs from a laptop right in front of me rather than peering at them from across a table. My business travel will halve after this.”

When he’s not beavering away online, Shivdasani has been enjoying getting back to nature at the private island resort. He says one of his favourite things to do is to simply walk around barefoot, enjoying the surrounding jungle which is rich with wildlife.

“We’ve introduced a project to eliminate mosquitoes naturally,” he says. “The idea was developed by a Dutch etymologist and uses buckets with traps and a smelly sachet that attracts the bugs. We’ve reduced the mosquito population by 95% and because we’re no longer using toxic sprays, the bees, dragonflies and butterflies have all returned,” he says.

Shivdasani has spent a lifetime in the hospitality business. He is founder and former CEO of Six Senses Resorts & Spas, which he sold in 2012 to focus on Soneva.

The Soneva properties came about with the launch of Soneva Fushi in the Maldives in 1995, followed by Soneva Jani and Soneva on Aqua, and in 2009 Soneva Kiri on the Thai island of Koh Kood. They all embrace Shivdasani’s eco-credentials and his love of barefoot living.

Shivdasani is also a founding member of The Soneva Foundation, formerly The SLOWLIFE Foundation, a registered charity that supports the development of projects that directly address social and environmental challenges around the world, from forest restoration programmes in northern Thailand to subsidising cooking stoves in Myanmar to eliminate the need for felling trees for firewood.

Soneva Fushi, where he now finds himself, is very much a family-targeted resort. It boasts a children’s den, Lego room, chocolate room, ice cream room, an observatory and the open-air Cinema Paradiso.

Shivdasani indeed makes a point of asking the children what they would like to enjoy at the resort. “I invite them for welcome drinks,” he says. “Not the parents, the children. That’s how we ended up with a Lego room. I have a chat with them and ask them what they would like to see, how we can make the resort better for them.”

Of course his biggest challenge at the moment is reopening the Soneva properties following the coronavirus pandemic. Resort owners throughout the Maldives have been in liaison with the Maldivian government over the safe reopening of the country, which closed to visitors in late March.

“The key is to be able to offer guests a Covid-free environment,” he says. “As a resort, we will be testing guests on arrival and then again on day five of their stay. During that initial five days guests will be able to gently isolate in and around their accommodation.” Over these days, guests will be charged a reduced rate on their accommodation.

Soneva Fushi, located as it is on a private island, lends itself well to a post-coronavirus set-up. The resort is spacious and embraces the outdoors. Not only that, coronavirus has been shown to survive in droplets for just one hour in the heat and humidity of the Maldives.

“Our hygiene levels were already very high and we’ve added lots of hand sanitiser throughout. But there are no masks. We’re trying to create a back-to-normal environment.”

Since this interview, the Maldives government has confirmed the country will reopen to international tourists on July 15. Guests must have a confirmed booking with a resort registered with the Ministry of Tourism and there are to be no multiple-location stays.

Arrivals will be encouraged to install the trace and contact app, TraceEkee, but there will be no testing at the airport and no medical certificate will be required.

Shivdasani expects demand to pick-up from the end of July and into August and says bookings are already being made for October. The challenge, he says, will be the quarantine restrictions set by individual governments.

“With fewer flights, demand will also rise for longer stays,” he says. “We’ve already had requests for 30-night stays.”

But the last three months haven’t all been nature walks and bee-watching. The team has been hard at work and on August 1, eight brand new overwater villas will launch at Soneva Fushi, the first overwater accommodation at the resort.

The one- and two-bedroom Water Retreats have been designed to ensure privacy and are accessed via a curving jetty near Dolphin Beach at the far end of the island. The one- and two-bedroom Water Retreats with Slide come with a private pool and a curving slide that plunges into the ocean. All villas have an upper level, a deck with loungers, a sunken seating area and catamaran nets over the water. And all have the Soneva signature outdoor bathroom with direct ocean access.

The brand new two-bedroom Water Retreat with Slide.

This month, Soneva will also launch its Namoona Baa initiative, with the unveiling of an ‘eco-centro’ waste-to-wealth complex on the neighbouring island of Maalhos. This makes Maalhos the first Maldivian island to eliminate the use of open burning for its waste.

Following Maalhos’ lead, the islands of Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo, which all share the Baa Atoll with Soneva Fushi, will introduce eco-centros later this year, also with a view to ending burning of island waste. The pledge to embrace eco-friendly waste management was made by the presidents of each island at a workshop hosted by Soneva Fushi in January.

The eco-centro model was pioneered by Soneva Fushi and will sort, recycle and reuse island waste. At the resort itself, food and organic waste, metals and bottles are chipped, ground down or composted and turned into something of economic value, such as bricks or fertilizer. Soneva will be supporting the creation of the eco-centros with funds from its Soneva Save our Seas programme.

“Maalhos can now produce wealth from its waste,” says Shivdasani. “This is just the beginning; we will roll out the eco-centros to Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo this year, and, working with the government, hopefully extend the project to the whole of Baa Atoll.”

In September 2019, Maldivian president Mohamed Solih announced a nationwide phase-out of single-use plastics to be implemented by 2023, one of the most comprehensive phase-outs of single-use plastics in the world.

Meanwhile, plans for the rest of the Soneva brand abound. In the pipeline is another island in the Maldives, and an island has also been bought near Okinawa, Japan, with building work due to start in 2021. Soneva Jani will be doubling in size and will be welcoming a plant-based restaurant in the treetops accessed via a zipline - “But I can’t say any more than that!” Shivdasani laughs.

And by August, it will finally be time for him to hop back on a plane again.

Soneva Fushi is opening with an Early Bird, Book Now Stay Later offer and family package rates with complimentary child stays. Contact the resort for more details.

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