In the early 1990s, the tourism industry wasn’t thriving in the Republic of Maldives. In fact, there were no luxury hotels in the entire nation at all. This may seem surprising, considering how rapidly the industry has expanded in the twenty-four years since. Even more surprising is the story of how one couple was responsible for accelerating this change.
At a time when tourism in the Maldives was suffering (to say the least), Indian-British entrepreneur Sonu Shivdasani and his wife, Eva, saw the untapped goldmine of potential in this small Arabian Sea republic, believing themselves to be “guardians of places that have existed long before us.”
They wished to carve out a place for likeminded individuals to travel when the pressures of life became too great. They envisioned private villas, pastel sunrises, waterfront bike trails. They saw a chance to create an ethereal dreamscape, a home away from home. They wished to do this in the form of a luxury hotel that could provide a safe haven for the constantly connected, burnt out city dweller.
The Shivdasanis coined the term “Intelligent Luxury” to describe their unique approach, and their resorts are marketed as introspective castaway experiences, rather than sleek, modern hotels that enable workaholics. The material is elevated over the digital; rather than boasting about high-speed Wi-Fi, Soneva resorts promise you will fall off the grid.
The natural beauty of the Maldives, and the desire to share the nation’s rich cultural history with a global network of wealthy travellers, inspired the couple to design a bold new business model that would combine luxury with environmental consciousness. They founded Soneva Resorts and Residences in 1995, and soon afterwards opened their first hotel, Soneva Fushi.
The Shivdasanis were so dedicated to environmental causes that they implemented a ban on branded bottled water and introduced a carbon levy to offset harmful emissions. Seemingly placing unique significance on the stars and the planets, they also oversaw the construction of the very first astronomy observatory in the Maldives, which is onsite at Soneva Fushi.
By the early 2000s, the success of Soneva Fushi was self-evident. A decade later, the couple began selling private villas on location and launched the Soneva Foundation, an extension of the Soneva brand that provides rural communities in Myanmar with economic, environmental, and social prospects.
A relatively new initiative, Soneva Art and Glass employs a team of studio artists and invites visitors to design and create innovative work with recycled glass materials.
The commitment to direct action is apparent in all that the Shivdasanis do. A quarter of a century after their first hotel opened its doors, the couple still remain intimately involved in the initiatives of the Soneva Foundation, and in spite of their success, they appear to provide a truly personal experience for each and every one of their resort guests.
Most recently, the Soneva Jani resort opened in the Maldives. In its third year of operation, the boutique resort is thriving. Nowhere is the concept of Intelligent Luxury more prevalent than on the ocean by the Soneva Jani, where guests frequently report feeling as though they have wandered into a watercolour painting. Breathtaking panoramic views are accessible from within every individual villa and, thanks to the Shivdasanis’ keen appreciation for the stars, ceilings have been specifically designed to slide open and reveal an awe-inspiring view of the night sky. Guests are encouraged to look heavenward and to seek within themselves to find peace.
If this sounds like an artist’s dream come true, it is. But entrepreneurs and corporate CEOs benefit from this soft and sensual mode de vie, too. Every aspect of the Soneva Jani experience — from the observatory to the sunset cruises to the curving wooden boardwalk — is intended to silence the mind, awaken the spirit, and enhance joy.
Images via Soneva.