The Maldives Re-imagined: Sustainability is the New Priority for Luxury Travel

Editors Note is proud to introduce guest contributor, and surf travel expert, Sunny Fassler. Sunny recently visited the Soneva Fushi resort in the Maldives, who make the bold claim to be taking strides towards carbon neutrality and total sustainability.

Sit back and enjoy Sunny’s fascinating insight into the current, and future initiatives that are potentially changing the face of surf travel.

As I’m waiting for my ride to get escorted to the first class seaplane lounge, my mind is running wild. 

The elephant in the room for surfers worldwide, the topic discussed in hushed tones at best, but generally brushed aside, is that traveling for surf isn’t the most sustainable of leisure activities.

the transport and tourism sectors sit well within the top 20 of the most polluting industries worldwide (depending on who you ask).

Throw an elevated traveling experience somewhere deep in the Indian Ocean into the mix, and you are basically vacationing at an energy level equivalent to a small power plant.

I was intrigued. I was skeptical. Let’s be honest; our society feeds on empty promises. It devours false ideas and tends to turn a blind eye to either of the two.

Just minutes earlier, I hugged goodbye the crew of the Seafarer. An epic 23-day boat trip starting in the countries capital, Male, taking us to the outer corners of the Northern, Central and Southern Atolls in search of perfect waves, came to an end. While Covid-19 presented more logistical hurdles than in previous years, the Maldives delivered better than advertised. 

An onshore-dominated week without much swell was compensated by 4-6ft clean groundswell from the South in weeks 2 and 3. Crowds? Far and few in between. And rather than meeting other charter boats along the way, we’ve exchanged a few hi’s and head nods with passing fishing boats instead.

The journey was supposed to end here. Surfed out, tending to the side effects of too much sun and not enough space between myself and the reef at times, I was almost ready to slide back into the last row of economy, spending the next 20+ hours unsuccessfully trying to get some sleep.

But a last-minute invitation to one of the most exclusive resorts in the country’s Northern Atolls with the promise of more uncrowded waves meant that my all but certain flight back home had once again been postponed by a few days.

Reality catches up with me. I notice my racing mind is simmering down as my ride arrives. It feels strange. In a country with over 1100 islands and whose sovereign territory is almost 100 percent ocean, I find myself loading my belongings into a brand new Tesla X 75d. 

“Your carbon-neutral experience starts here – stretching in white, bold letters across the side of both doors, accompanied by a powered by Soneva Fushi prominently on display on the rear glass window.

My last-minute change of heart involving yet another PCR test and a few bucks in booking fees wasn’t motivated by the promise of empty, pumping waves or an all-expenses-paid waterfront villa for myself and my pals from LUEX Surf Travel. Sure, uncrowded waves and a four-figure-a-night pad definitely helped, but it was the pledge of a carbon-neutral experience that really sweetened the deal.

The prospect of indulging in a luxurious holiday experience at one of the Maldives’ most exclusive resorts without guilt sounded not only like an empty promise but also felt like an invitation to those who crave false ideas and life for the likes.

Yet, I found myself waiting – comfortably tucked in between two oversized pillows on a Tatami-themed futon for our seaplane transfer to arrive. Time’s slowing down. I feel my nervous system switching from alert to tranquil as I’m browsing through a bamboo-wrapped binder, diving into the rich history of Soneva Fushi.

Almost at the end of my pre-flight lecture, I got distracted by a man in slacks and a tidy white shirt, urging us to pack our belongings and head over to the gate where the captain had already fired up the engine of our Seaplane.

Our 25-minute transfer went as expected. Crammed into what felt like a 4m x 2m tin can without much room to the left, front, right or rear and the constant vibration of the fast rotating propeller blades but a view that made everything worthwhile.

However, I was still sitting on the fence, waiting to be convinced that what follows would be as advertised – a carbon-neutral experience. Because despite the bamboo-covered binder and the electric vehicle en route to an eco-friendly lounge, I’m surrounded by strangers chatting in Russian, Arabic, Chinese and languages I had never heard before – all traveling from afar, amassing carbon waste for different reasons while ironically buying into one common theme; A environmentally conscious holiday experience.

On arrival, the landscape changed yet again. Off came the shoes, and the smell of kerosine was replaced by the scent of lush palm trees and twisting vines. At the end of the long wooden jetty, the gateway to a different world, we were introduced to Sayeed, our Thakuru, for the entirety of our stay, who gave us a tour of luxury eco-resort – all 560,000m2 of it!

The island is enormous, and the hotel’s amenities scattered across the island are absolutely insane. Anything you can think of, from an in-house chocolate factory to a state-of-the-art dive center, it’s there. 1,869km from the nearest landmass, deep in the Indian Ocean. 

But perhaps the most impressive part of Soneva’s operation are the efforts that go into the resort’s infrastructure to stay true to their “guardians of places that have existed long before us” principles cultivating nature’s enchanting beauty while instilling a deep conviction of luxurious experiences throughout the resort.

It’s clear that this isn’t just a marketing slogan or an attempt to sell more rooms. Instead, sustainable hospitality is the DNA of Soneva Fushi and all of its sister resorts in the Maldives and Thailand. 

While finding myself sitting on the fence days earlier on a seaplane en route to Soneva Fushi, I have now fully bought into the idea that luxury travel and sustainability can co-exist beyond the flawed attempts to offset carbon emissions by planting trees or donating to charity. Both are pure in their core and a step in the right direction but fail to address the root cause of the issue. 

Consumerism is at the zenith of luxury travel, often disturbing entire ecosystems or do you think the chilled bottle of San Pellegrino along with the smoked salmon ceviche served on Italian tableware is native to a nation comprised of 1190 islands?

It’s easy to forget about supply chains, waste management, supply & demand or energy consumption when indulging in luxury far away from everyday responsibilities, but this is where Soneva Fushi really solidifies its position revolutionizing the way we travel with its Waste to Wealth initiatives.

Trailblazing sustainable tourism, Soneva Fushi has its own “waste to wealth” facilities, recycling as much as 90% of its waste through eloquent waste management systems. Food leftover is composted and turned into nutritious soil for the resort’s herb and vegetable gardens, which in turn provide much of the produce used across the different kitchens of the resort.

Some efforts are as small as replacing plastic straws with paper-made alternatives or repurposing styrofoam packaging and turning it into building materials for Sonvea Fushi’s villas and infrastructure. Other efforts involve much more flex – both financially and intellectually. 

For an island nation like the Maldives, which is heavily reliant on tourism, contributing over 28% of the country’s GDP, waste, particularly plastic, is a major problem. As a result, Soneva is the nation’s first company to recycle plastic into new products, using open-source machines made from locally available, low-cost supplies.

An initiative that has seen imported plastic bottles being banned resort-wide since 2008, eliminating the production of 1,500,000 (and counting) plastic bottles by installing their own water production & filling (reusable glass bottles) plant on the island.

There is more. A sustainable surf program. Various community outreach and educational programs. Coconut oil distillery. Marine cultivation projects. That’s just a few more. The bottom line is that no words can describe how significant and thoughtful these initiatives are. 

Each of them is remarkable and progressive in its own right, but they provide the ingredients to Soneva Fushi’s carbon-neutral experience as a collective. A badge of pride that does not come easy. A badge that needs determination and hard work. A badge that requires special people with a whole new set of values towards how we are supposed to travel.

What’s even more impressive is Soneva’s perpetual appetite for more. For better. Their belief in it takes a village idealism pushes the boundaries of sustainable tourism, leaving them in a realm of their own with very little competition. 

Soneva aims to recycle 100% of its waste by 2030 and solely rely on renewable energy by 2025 – an unprecedented objective for a country that literally runs on generators. 

We pulled up at a fun little left not far from the resort. As you can imagine, no one out. We stopped at a few other breaks. Pure glass, peeling lefts and rights over perfectly shaped reef passages with no soul in sight. It is quiet up North. The perfect way to end our 4-day stint at Soneva Fushi trading clean 3-4ft wedges on a few alternative handshapes we grabbed from Soneva’s sustainable surf center. 

They feel different. They are the perfect metaphor to describe Soneva Fushi. Progressively different and purposely designed for people looking for impactful change beyond the social norms. 

An enlightening journey is coming to an end. A trip that will undoubtedly change the way I think about surf trips. 

But one question remains; If it takes a village to drive change and change to save our planet, why is it that only Soneva Fushi and a handful of others pledge their future to the African proverb?

Soneva epitomise not only luxury travel, but the type of stance that can be taken in the pursuit of limiting our impact on the planets precious resources.

To learn more about the Soneva Group click here.