What makes a luxury hotel eco-friendly and sustainable?

Friday newsletters always feature luxury travel conteststipsseries, or news.

Today: Sustainable and eco-friendly hotel concepts

Responsible travel maximizes the benefits of tourism while minimizing its negative consequences on the environment and society. I have previously published my tips for sustainable air travel, but there’s also plenty you can do on the ground. One of the main things eco-conscious travelers can do to reduce their carbon footprint is to choose a sustainable hotel when booking a holiday. Most people associate sustainability with protecting the environment, but sustainability is much more. It is based on three key pillars of ecological, social and economic factors.

In recent years, sustainable hotels have sprung up across the planet, catering to increasingly sophisticated consumers that demand only the most exclusive, authentic and eco-friendly experiences. Many hotels have implemented a green policy, by using sustainable construction materials, recycling waste materials, conserving water, or preserving fragile ecosystems. And sustainability doesn’t mean compromising on luxury: several of the world’s most luxurious hotel brands feel it’s important to do their part. One resort group which is at the forefront of these sustainability efforts and which has inspired the entire travel industry is Soneva, my favorite hotel brand in the world. Soneva has four spectacular resorts so far (with more exciting properties planned to open in the near future):

Soneva’s earliest “green” initiatives began 20 years ago by desalinating water and eliminating plastic bottled water being imported to its island. Today, Soneva has implement a wide range of impressive eco-friendly policies, which makes the hotel group a world leader in sustainable travel practises (continue reading below the photo).


Soneva Namoona is the group’s flagship sustainability project in the Maldives, which brings plastic use reduction, recycling, ocean stewardship and environmental education under one umbrella. Namoona, which means ‘exemplary’ in Dhivehi the language of the Maldives, is a partnership with local islands. In a nation with few municipal waste facilities and huge stress on the limited available land, the sea has traditionally been a useful dumping ground for local Maldivian islands. For today’s generation, that waste is plastic bottles, plastic packaging and aluminium cans. Soneva Namoona provides funding, expertise and coordination for a waste management system that cleans up local islands and demonstrates that single-use plastics can be phased out of the Maldives. In parallel, Soneva Namoona is nurturing a new generation of ocean stewards through watersports, education and festivities. The belief is that if children learn to swim, surf and snorkel, they can lose their fear of the ocean and learn to love it. If they love it, they are more likely to protect it. The goal for Soneva Namoona is to become a model that can be adopted throughout the Maldives.


Soneva established the waste-to-wealth program to tackle waste issues in a non-traditional way. The program aims to change the perception of waste by showing that it is a resource that can be used to create useful items for resort operations as well as to create objects of beauty. Last year, Soneva recycled 90% of its solid waste, and generated $ 400,000 USD in value from what others perceive as waste. A brilliant initiative iof the waste-to-wealth program is Soneva Fushi’s glass studio, where the Maldives’ waste glass is turned into valuable works of art. Here, guests can watch world-renowned glass artists create glass art, participate in art exhibitions, learn the art of glass blowing in special courses, or even personally design their own masterpiece to take home at the Maldives’ first glass studio.


Soneva has been producing its own drinking water since 2008 and they were one of the first resort companies in the world to ban branded bottled water. In the past 10 years, they have averted the production of 1,500,000 plastic bottles. Soneva Water is filtered, mineralized, alkalized and bottled on site in reusable glass bottles. A percentage of revenues from Soneva Water funds over 500 clean water projects in more than 50 countries, providing clean water to over 750,000 people via charities such as Water Charity and Thirst Aid. Most recently, Soneva Water is rolled out to its neighboring islands of Maalhos, Dharavandhoo and Kihaadhoo, reducing dependence on unreliable rainwater and increasing access to pure, filtered water in reusable glass bottles. Soneva Water also helps reduce plastic waste on local islands and prevents further marine plastic pollution.


The sun shines a lot in Soneva locations, and so solar is an excellent source of sustainable energy for these ultraluxe hotels. The current solar photovoltaic capacity at Soneva Fushi is 694kWp which gives us an annual generation of 956,945 kWh. This reduces diesel consumption by 287,084 litres. To put it another way, it saves the equivalent greenhouse emissions produced from driving the average car for approximately 3,000,000 km (1,800,000 miles).


The use of chemical insecticides to control insect pest species is the most adopted strategy across the globe. Whilst this method has its benefits in reducing pest numbers, this often untargeted approach is likely to be harmful to the environment as it indiscriminately affects all wildlife in the areas where the chemicals are used. Soneva Fushi’s Integrated Pest Control manager Akib Jahir is using eco-friendly Biogents mosquito traps that eliminate mosquito populations without resorting to harmful chemicals. The mosquitoes caught will be closely monitored, counted and analyzed by scientists. The goal is to eliminate mosquitoes on Soneva Fushi by end of 2020 and if successful this can be replicated in other parts of the world.


As a sustainable hotel leader, Soneva has always had a strict policy on what it served (and not served) in its restaurants. They operate a ‘no no’ list that ensures no endangered species are on the menus and that they only serve fish caught sustainably. Chefs at Soneva resorts in the Maldives and Thailand discuss their food sourcing in fortnightly conference calls, giving them a focus and helping them to learn from each other. Menus are updated with the sustainability rating of food products and suppliers. Currently, Soneva is assessing the embedded CO 2 in some of its ingredients, such as beef, which will help to decide the best supplier by farming method and geographical location. Soneva is also focused on sourcing more of its food locally. At Soneva Kiri over 5 tons of herbs and vegetables are grown each year to a value of nearly $ 10,000 USD. Additionally, Soneva Kiri is now producing its own cheddar, feta and blue cheeses with raw materials from Thailand rather than importing the cheese from Europe. Soneva has also created its own smoking machines that allow them to smoke locally caught sea bass and mackerel to give more variety without the need to import products. Each Soneva resort also has a heavenly chocolate room where guests can indulge in fair trade truffles and chocolates.


Soneva hotels are built to world-leading standards of sustainable practises. When Soneva Jani was built, every aspect of its total impact on the environment was considered, from protecting the local flora and fauna to building strong community relationships with its neighbors. Using sustainably sourced wood is paramount – if it isn’t from a sustainable source, Soneva simply won’t use it. Where practical, fast growing softwoods such as casuarinas and acacia are used. Bamboo, technically a grass, is also one of the group’s preferred building materials. Where hardwood is required, it is sourced from sustainably managed forests, preferably certified by the likes of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).


Where possible, Soneva’s fixtures, fittings and operating equipment are produced by small village artisans in Thailand. Crockery, cutlery and lamp shades bring local character into its resorts and bring commerce to local artisans. Room amenities allow Soneva to combine artisan craft with a lower carbon footprint. Providing soap and shampoo in ceramic dispensers allows Soneva to support local traders at the same time as eliminating disposable packaging and lowering its carbon footprint from freight.  Colorful daybeds and cushions are an iconic feature of Soneva resorts. These hand-woven fabrics (used in the villa and restaurant interiors) come from Barefoot in Sri Lanka. Barefoot works almost exclusively with women in rural communities, allowing them to work locally without having to leave their families. There are no factories and no production lines. For over 40 years Barefoot has provided training and fair wages to its workers and an environment conducive to creativity.


Each of the Soneva hotels in the Maldives and Thailand has a designated Sustainability Officer who collects and reports performance data on all resort activities and equipment that emit greenhouse gases. In addition to monitoring its own emissions, Soneva also collects data on emissions from activities that occur outside the resort property, but which can be directly attributed to the activities of the resort – this includes emissions from the freight transport of goods and the air travel of hosts and guests.


The Soneva Foundation is a registered charity founded in 2010. It is funded by Soneva’s 2% carbon levy on room revenue and profits from the sale of water bottled on the sustainable hotel property. The Soneva Foundation is supporting several projects, with some examples listed below:

  • Each year 4 million people die from household air pollution from cooking with inefficient stoves. Families in rural Myanmar spend as much as 40% of their income on firewood. Soneva has provided 270,000 people in Myanmar and Darfur with fuel-efficient stoves that reduce deforestation and help combat deathly indoor air pollution. The cook stoves supplied by the Soneva Foundation reduce wood consumption by 50%, air pollution by 80% and CO2 emissions by 60%. Using innovative impact investing principles, projects produce their own financial returns which are used to further scale reach and impact.
  • The Soneva Foundation partnered with PATT Foundation to plant over 500,000 trees covering 300 acres in the Chiang Mai region of Northern Thailand. A Framework Species Methodology was used, with guidance from the Forest Restoration Research Unit of Chiang Mai University. Ninety species of trees have been planted. Over a period of seven to eight years, seed-disbursing birds will increase the number of species further, creating a rich biodiverse forest. The project will mitigate an estimated 255,000 tons of CO2. Three main sites have been restored at Doi Paa Maa in Sri Lanna National Park, the Royal Project at Nong Hoi and at the Pai River Watershed Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • Hornbills are important for the biodiversity of a tropical forest. They are large birds that disperse larger seeds than smaller species, which will help grow a more biodiverse forest. Unfortunately, the hornbills are locally extinct from Koh Kood, Thailand. The Hornbill Reintroduction project is a Soneva Foundation project that aims to reintroduce Oriental-pied Hornbills on Koh Kood. Working with hornbill experts from the Foresty Department of Kasetseart University, the Hornbill Research Foundation, the Zoological Parks Organization, the Department of National Parks as well as the local Sub-district Administration Office of Koh Kood and the Navy, Oriental-pied Hornbills will be released on the island. The 55-70 cm tall birds with a wingspan of 23-36 cm will spend their first couple of months in an enclosure. This is an important step for the birds to adapt to their new location before being released into the wild. Fortunately, the Orientalpied Hornbill adapts well to secondary forests and humandominated landscape.

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1 Comment

  1. Sustainable hotels should be what the standard sets moving forward, given not just the amenities listed here but the values that people possess as time goes on. The ways in which they can make a difference to their environments is becoming increasingly important to them.

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