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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Sonu Shivdasani: the man who put the Maldives on the luxury tourism map

Soneva Fushi, a celebrity honeymoon favourite, has now been operating for 25 years. We sit down with its founder
Today Soneva Fushi is home to 63 villas with private swimming pools, a spa, a diving centre, an outdoor “Cinema Paradiso”, an observatory and a number of restaurants: Out Of The Blue, Fresh In The Garden, So Hands On, Once Upon A Table, Mihiree Mithaa, Down Two Earth and, the newest, Shades Of Green.

Listen to hotelier Sonu Shivdasani tell his story and you will also hear the history of the tourism industry in the Maldives unfold. Today, the increasing collection of resorts on the Indian Ocean islands means it’s one of the most desired holiday destinations. The luxury villas, pristine beaches and blindingly blue waters offer visitors a chance to disconnect in a way few other locations can.

This reputation is thanks, in no small part, to Shivdasani. He and his wife Eva Malmstrom, founded Soneva Fushi, one of the Maldives’s oldest and most luxurious resorts (where Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner honeymooned only weeks ago). The resort has been a labour of love three decades in the making.

An aerial view of Soneva Fushi, which is one of the Maldives's oldest and most luxurious resorts

Born in Britain to Indian parents, Shivdasani met his Swedish future wife Malmstrom, who was modelling at the time, while studying English literature at the University of Oxford in the late 1980s. The travel-loving couple soon became regular visitors to the Maldives’s paradisaical beaches. “I think we’d lived there in a previous life,” he tells me. “I definitely felt a lot of familiarity. We loved it and we’d often go back because I had a lot of time off from university.”

Shivdasani says a holiday in the Maldives in those days wasn’t the luxurious experience it is today. “One day we were sitting on the beach and I said to Eva that it would be nice if we could lease an island to build a house on,” he says. Malmstrom, who now oversees all of the Soneva brand’s interior design, supported the idea. The next morning, in holiday shorts and a T-shirt, Shivdasani set off for the capital, Male. It was considerably smaller than it is now. With only about 20 resorts operating at the time, the Maldives didn’t even have a ministry of tourism.

Sonu and Eva

After several meetings he was advised to bid for an island, which he first tried to do at an auction in September 1988. His proposal to the Maldivian government included fewer rooms than it wanted in developments, but promised more luxury and profit. “We failed, because we were foreign and we didn’t have contact with a tour operator,” Shivdasani says. “They thought our idea was too speculative and we wouldn’t be able to pull it off.”

Treading lightly at Soneva Fushi

The idea was shelved, but not abandoned, and the disappointed couple returned to a life split between Oxford and Geneva. Three years later, they were told about the island of Kunfunadhoo, where Soneva Fushi now stands. A resort was built on it in 1975 and closed after only four years due to problems with transport and the site lay abandoned. Shivdasani bid successfully for the island, and, in 1995, Soneva Fushi was launched. “Once we opened the resort, I felt, yes, this is good,” he says. “I felt it made sense, we knew how to do it and we could potentially do more.”

Soneva Fushi is now home to 63 villas with private swimming pools, a spa, a diving centre, an outdoor “Cinema Paradiso”, an observatory and several restaurants. Shivdasani and Malmstrom also own and run Soneva Kiri in Thailand and Soneva Jani, also in the Maldives. As he walks around Soneva Fushi, he treats his staff like family. Guests are also told about the resort’s philosophy, which is to “create unforgettable, enlightening experiences that illuminate lives while treading lightly on the Earth”.

Eyes on the Middle East

Soneva’s success led to the couple launching the Six Senses hotel brand, and the formation of one of the Middle East’s most popular luxury spa brands. “We ended up managing the spa at Madinat Jumeirah for a year or two,” Shivdasani says. “Then Jumeirah decided to start their own spa brand.”

During a stopover in Dubai while on his way to Europe, Shivdasani attended a dinner hosted by his head of sales and marketing in the Middle East, to which a member of the Sharjah royal family, as well as members of several affluent UAE families, were invited. A light bulb went on in his head and he decided to mention one of his dream locations, Musandam in Oman. “I thought it was a beautiful, fantastic area for a resort and so close to Dubai,” he says. “When we were choosing sites I’d always adopt that strategy of ‘remote but accessible’, a phrase I still use.”

He mentioned the possibility of opening a resort there. As luck would have it, his royal dinner companion had a business partner who owned an “amazing site” that was ripe for development. “So we did the deal and it was built in two and half years,” he says. “That’s how Zighy Bay came about. It’s a lovely resort.”

In 2012, he sold Zighy Bay, as well as the other 25 Six Senses resorts and 41 spas, to focus on the Soneva brand. “One owner, one operator, one philosophy, one brand” became his, and Soneva’s, motto. That some believe the Maldives may disappear within a century if climate change isn’t halted means sustainability is now vital to many brands that operate there.

Safeguarding a 'pristine, unique environment'

Soneva Fushi’s founders say that for them, sustainability was always a priority in running the resort. Shivdasani says that in Britain in the late 1980s, as concrete developments began to crop up, “the environment was starting to become a bit of topic at university”.

“Then we arrived in this pristine, unique environment and we realised that people were travelling half way round the world because of the beautiful environment and it didn’t make any sense to undermine that,” he explains.

Soneva Fushi’s menu offers no beef dishes, there are no single-use plastics and water is bottled locally. There are no TV channels available. Visitors are encouraged to put their shoes away after arriving and navigating the island is possible only on foot or by bicycle. Shivdasani says sustainability may not necessarily be a priority for many tourists, but it is important to him. “Wealthy travellers believe they’ve earned themselves the holiday,” he says. “They work hard and they don’t want to make any compromises, no sacrifices.”

Between 45 and 52 per cent of people staying at Soneva Fushi are returning guests. At Soneva Kiri it is 20 per cent, while it is still early days for Soneva Jani. “It’s a big testament to come back to us, we’re grateful for that,” he says. “We do have a lot celebrities who seem to enjoy their stay.

Its famous fans

“Some are discreet and try to keep to themselves, while others post their visits. Gwyneth Paltrow, I think in an interview with The New York Times, said one of her favourite restaurants was Benz’s at Soneva Kiri.”

Every guest at Soneva Fushi gets their own Ms or Mr Friday, who will see to their every need and ensure the resort’s philosophy is experienced to its fullest. “At Soneva Fushi we don’t have employees, we have hosts,” Shivdasani says. “Our hosts are passionate about what we stand for. Fundamentally, luxury travel and tourism is not about how big the villas are, or the food or the spa, which we obviously do well. What defines quality is the magic we create.”

To reinforce the philosophy, Shivdasani created the Soneva Foundation, an initiative that “supports the development of projects that have a positive environmental, social and economic impact”. All funds are raised by the business rather than through donations, he says.

From 2008, Shivdasani decided to calculate Soneva’s carbon footprint to stricter standards than those at other resorts. A mandatory carbon levy was introduced at his resorts, allowing Soneva and Six Senses to generate $1.5 million (Dh5.5m) in one year. At the same time Marriott also introduced a more common voluntary levy and, despite operating several thousand properties, raised $400,000.

Soneva used the money raised to help fund several projects in Asia, such as planting half a million trees in Thailand to help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, as well as introducing cook stoves in Darfur and Myanmar to help eliminate firewood burning, which can cause lung asphyxiation.

Walking around Soneva Fushi, it’s clear Shivdasani and his wife have realised their dreams.

Rabbits, rare birds, turtles and bats flourish in the ecosystem where the couple built their resorts. The villas and restaurants are a perfect marriage of luxury and nature, and the beaches are Instagram perfect.

Sonu and Eva Shivdasani

But Shivdasani says that more is yet to come. “We acquired land late last year for another resort in the Maldives,” he says. “That will start construction in October and we’re hoping to open at the end of next year. There’s another Maldives resort we’re working on. In Japan, we acquired the rights to purchase 60 hectares of land on a private island and we’re slowly working on getting all the permits.”

You know what you’ll get at Soneva. Privacy, luxury, sustainability. And a bit of history along the way, too.

Updated: July 24, 2019 01:59 PM