by: Sonu Shivdasani (Founder and CEO – Soneva)
The Maldives is awash with plastic. Plastic bottles litter the beaches, plastic bags get caught up in coral reefs, bits of plastic even make their way into the stomachs of whale sharks. Every year, there is more and more plastic litter. And every year, more and more people complain that the country’s beauty is being ruined by plastic pollution.
Some of the biggest culprits in this eco crime are resorts, whose consumption of single use plastics is often far higher than that of local islands. Resorts are required by law to crush their waste, and send it for “safe” disposal, often to Thilafushi. But frequently, it seems that the garbage never makes it there. Instead, it blows off the back of dhonis, or is dumped in the sea while nobody is watching.
Even the plastic waste that does make it to Thilafushi is burned in a giant, toxic bonfire. Huge plumes of poisonous smoke can often be seen wafting over Male’. Goodness knows the damage it is doing to children’s lungs.
There is, however, hope that we can turn the tide on plastics. The most effective solution is at source: discontinuing the use of plastics. Resorts must play a leading role and phase out the use of single use plastic bottles, bags and other items. I find it remarkable that in 2019, hotels still compete with one another to serve different types of branded water — often served in plastic bottles. It is amazing they still do this, when the discerning luxury traveller knows all too well the impact that single use plastics cause.
My wife Eva and I opened Soneva Fushi, in the Baa atoll, in 1995. Since 2008, we have never served water in plastic bottles. Period. We use reusable glass bottles, filled with water made at the island’s reverse-osmosis plant. (Very occasionally, a guest asks for branded water, which we will go and purchase at a neighbouring resort. But this happens rarely).
The same is true of Soneva Jani, which opened in the Noonu atoll in 2016. In almost 25 years operating resorts worldwide, I cannot recall a single guest ever complaining that their water was served in a glass bottle. Instead, guests are happy they are not contributing to the plastic problem, and they like the beautiful ceramic tops on our glass bottles, and the elegantly designed jugs, in which we serve drinking water.
Resorts can also remove other single use plastics from their supply chains. At Soneva, we have used paper, wood and bamboo straws since we started. We have never used plastic straws. Again, we have received no push-back from our guests. It surprises me that luxury hotels still compete with branded toiletries. We have never used branded toiletries in any of our resorts. We have always had our in-room amenities, such as shampoo and shower gel, delivered in large 5-gallon tubs that are used to fill ceramic bottles that are refilled when empty.
Our experience with banning single use plastic items has yielded many benefits. We earn around US$ 90,000 per year selling our own bottled water to guests (we donate this entire sum to water charities). And banning branded water has not affected our bottom line. Our REVPAR (average rate multiplied by occupancy) at Soneva Jani is often the highest in the Maldives, and probably one of the highest of any hotel in the world. I believe that a company must have a purpose beyond paying employees salaries and shareholder dividends. I believe that our SLOWLIFE Core Purpose is one that rings true to both our hosts and guests alike. Reducing our use of plastics reinforces this Core Purpose; thus making the brand more valuable.
Over the years, I have tried to persuade the hospitality industry to follow some of our sustainability examples. I co-founded and chaired the Whole World Water charity, whose purpose was to encourage hotels to serve water bottled on site, but I was disappointed that more resorts did not sign up. Hotel companies always have so many excuses for not getting rid of single use plastics.
Fortunately, today, things are starting to change. We see more and more resorts across the Maldives scrapping single use plastics and, for example, bottling their own water on site in reusable glass bottles. This is welcome news. But I fear that many resorts will resist change – especially some of the big, luxury brands.
To really grapple with plastic pollution in the Maldives, the new government should consider an outright ban on single use plastics. I cannot see the tourism industry changing on its own. Once people are pushed to change, though, often they realise things are better and it simplifies their operations. It tends to be a win-win all around.
Resorts cannot keep polluting this beautiful country with plastics. We cannot keep shrugging our shoulders in apathy, when visitors complain about plastic litter on the beaches, thundis, or coral reefs. For tourism to keep flourishing, we must put an end to the scourge of single use plastics.