Can Travel and Tourism have a net positive contribution to Conservation, the Environment, as well as the Community?
Travel and flying are often highlighted as prime examples of human behavior that contribute to Global Warming, and things that needs to change with immediate effect if we are to handover to the next generation a world similar to what we have been able to experience and love in our own lifetimes.
Whilst air travel will account for a bulk of an individual’s own ecological footprint, it today still accounts for about 2% of greenhouse gases. The damage it causes pales when one considers agriculture’s contribution to global warming, especially the beef industry, where the numbers are at least 10 times that of air travel.
There are also some examples of tourism over developments in many parts of the world, where developers constructed large concrete jungles that today remain ghost towns for most of the year. The local community lost out big time and their overall quality of life deteriorated. For, the Developers tended to be foreign, they generally engaged foreigners and the tourists tended to consume packaged products brought in from outside. Wherever local ingredients or resources were consumed, it was at the expense of the local community. So, in general, the profits of the operations were repatriated, salaries were spent back home, and the local community rarely benefitted from this new commerce. They just suffered from the inflationary pressures on certain qualities of life that they had taken for granted such as cheap seaside living, or fish, which they could no longer afford.
In spite of the above, I remain a strong advocate of the overall positive impact of travel & tourism and the key role it plays in conservation. Vast tracts of South and East Africa would now be farmland if it were not for the conservation efforts of the many lodges and camps whose tourists indirectly fund these efforts. Five years ago President Bongo of Gabon transferred 11 million hectares of land from timber concessions and mining concessions to a National Park with a view to attracting tourists to visit.
Closer to home, the Government of the Maldives banned the fishing of both sharks and turtles. Part of the Maldives – Baa Atoll, where one of our resorts is located – has become a UNESCO Biosphere. The catalyst for these actions was the calculation that a shark or turtle swimming happily in the ocean was considerably more valuable alive than dead.
It will be vital for travel and tourism to have a net positive contribution to conservation, the environment as well as the community in order for this industry, which has been my life for the last 30 years, to survive in a post COVID-19 era.
Let me now share with you our own experiences at Soneva which I hope will reinforce the case for travel & tourism as an overall source of good.
When my wife Eva and I opened our first resort in 1995 we held a firm belief that a company must have a clear purpose beyond just making money. We were also convinced that a successful business is the one that combines apparent contrasts and makes these ‘opposites’ compatible. When this is achieved and it works, it creates an experience that is both unique and accepted, that one immediately develops a very strong level of loyalty from the guest.
Today, two decades later we’d like to think that our guiding principle of creating engaging and imaginative SLOWLIFE for our guests, which is our moral as well as our operating compass, has also provided a blueprint for the future of the hospitality industry.
This SLOWLIFE focus has led to levels of guest loyalty and repeat business that far surpass industry norms, and this tells us unequivocally that the values of a company matter to those who consume its products. This is rare in the modern world but Soneva distinguishes itself because combined with the space, privacy and comfort of our villas and rooms, and the intuitive service provided by our hosts, we have also demonstrated how sustainable materials can have a great aesthetic.
Being able to bring out the beauty of nature, whether it is in our design, or the guest experiences that we offer, has set us apart from the competition.
We may sometimes fall short of our own high standards, but we are very clear about our responsibilities as custodians of the communities we operate in. This responsibility to one’s community is somewhat complicated for a company such as ours whose guests jet in from all over the globe. As a result, our social and environmental responsibilities are as much global as they are local. We therefore set up the Soneva Foundation (a UK registered Charity) to not only focus on local initiatives, but to also focus on change at a level far beyond the direct communities in which our resorts operate and to recognize our obligations to society in general.
One can argue that the Soneva Foundation is exceptional in that nearly all of its funding has been derived as a result of changes to the way in which we do business at our resorts, not donations. Let me explain:
- Twelve years ago, I noticed a huge number of plastic water bottles washed up on our beaches in the Maldives. We decided not to point fingers at those who were allowing their water bottles to spoil our oceans while still serving bottled water in our resort and therefore still part of the problem. So, we took the decision to stop offering branded bottle water, and instead serve water filtered, mineralised, alkalised, and bottled on site in reusable glass bottles.
- In the middle of 2019, we installed the first glass water bottling centre on one of the inhabited island. We filter and mineralize the desalinated island water and then place it in sterlized glass water bottles. When the bottles are returned, the consumer achieves 20% saving on their water purchase compared with if they had bought the water in plastic bottles from Male. As I write, we have avoided 120,000 plastic bottles from being consumed.
- In February 2020, we celebrated a Maldives’ first: Maalhos became the first island in the country to end the practice of burning its garbage in open bonfires. This was made possible by the opening of the island’s Eco Centro waste to wealth centre, funded by Soneva and modelled on Soneva Fushi’s own Eco Centro. Later in 2020, we hope to open Eco Centros on Dharavandhoo, Kihadhoo.
- In 2008, we realised that our approach towards measuring carbon emissions was limited as we were not measuring guests’ international lights. To our great surprise, we discovered that 85% of the CO2 emissions from Soneva Fushi come from scope 3, which the industry in general do not measure. So, we took the simple step of adding a mandatory 2% Environmental Levy to our guests’ bills, to off-set all our emissions. It was a small change, and relatively small charge, which we found our guests more than happy to accept. And the rewards have been great. In twelve years, we have raised about USD 7 million, which the Soneva Foundation has used to fund a reforestation programme in northern Thailand, finance wind power generators in South India, and even a commitment to 150,000 low carbon cooking stoves in Myanmar and Darfur.
- It is remarkable that many children in our island nation, the Maldives, do not swim. A fear of the water is compounded by a nationwide waste problem that sees local island beaches used as a dumping ground for household waste. Following the 2013 Soneva Symposium, Soneva Fushi established a “Learn To Swim” programme with our neighbouring island Eydhafushi. By teaching children to swim, we hope that they will learn to love their ocean, and when they love it, they will protect it. We are now looking to scale this programme to offer intensive swimming programmes across the Atoll, partnering with other resorts, local and national NGOs, environmental awareness groups and government ministries.
In a post COVID-19 world, consumers will be more conscious of the impact that they will have on both nature and the communities which they visit.
I mentioned above that air travel, whilst it is a big part of an individual’s ecological footprint, is a very small contributor to greenhouse gases and its contribution is slight when compared to the negative impact of the beef and dairy industry. In October 2018, I was diagnosed with stage 4 Lymphoma. Fortunately, today, I am fully recovered. My cure was a result of following traditional medicine such as chemotherapy, but combining this with alternative healing and importantly, a change to my diet. I dramatically reduced my consumption of sugar, white flour and importantly, dairy, and red meat, especially beef. Apart from overcoming cancer, I found that I became so much healthier than I have ever been.
We have similarly introduced a menu change at our resorts. Our Chefs have reduced sugar, dairy, white flour and beef in all our menus. Beef consumption has reduced by 75% in only one year. Dairy consumption has reduced considerably as well. It is our goal to bring the consumption of these two ingredients almost to zero. Apart from being good for our guests’ health, this approach has also been very good for the environment. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN, animal agriculture and the associated deforestation is responsible for more than 18 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, and is expected to increase 80% by 2050. This dwarfs air travel, which is at 2% – 3%, and transportation as a whole which is at about 8% of global greenhouse gases.
The private sector has a huge role to play in the solutions agenda and we assume this responsibility as totally central to our core purpose. Corporations should look back to the history books and remember that having a purpose should be central to their mandate – and that this contribution should be measured and valued as robustly as any financial returns.
I have always been a big fan of Janine Benyus and her concept of Biomimicry. In her book, she describes Innovations Inspired by Nature. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci imagined the first helicopter by closely observing the behaviour of the Hummingbird. It was Leonardo’s drawings that helped Igor Sikorsky in his invention of the first helicopter. So, the helicopter the result of biomimicry.
At Soneva, we have always used nature as an inspiration for our innovation.
It is my hope that in a post COVID-19 era, we will work in harmony with nature rather than against it. COVID-19 itself, came about because we ignored nature’s laws. Let me share with you a recent success at Soneva which emphasizes this point.
In the middle of last year at Soneva Fushi, we set a target to become the first island in the world to be completely mosquito free. We decided to trap mosquitoes by studying their habits and creating a natural trap. We have installed 500 buckets throughout the island. In each bucket is a little swab that mimics human sweat. We then mix sugar and baking soda and create a pump system to generate CO2. So, these traps smell and breathe like a human being. The mosquitoes are lured into the net and then cannot escape.
In June last year, we started this initiative and sent Rentokil, our pest control operator, home. No more toxic spraying. Just these buckets. In the first days of implementing this, our 500 buckets caught about 9000 mosquitoes a day, on average 20 mosquitoes per bucket. The catch on the island now has reduced to early double digits. We have two mosquitoes on the island, the Aedes and the Culex. The Culex is nearly extinct and we hope that the Aedes will soon follow. It is my hope that this will be a perfect example of how by closely following and understanding the laws of nature, and innovating around it, one can find solutions that end up being more effective than solutions that are the result of engineering nature.
I would like to end by quoting Ervin Laszlo in a recent article:
“Some of our technologies have developed a life of their own. They are shaping human life and the human world. This is a dangerous development. It could lead to a variety of “collateral damages” even to the creation of quasi living organisms such as malignant viruses. We must ensure that our technologies are safe, and that they serve our needs. This means achieving a healthy balance that allows all life on earth to flourish in harmony.”
Written by Sonu Shivdasani
Founder and CEO, Soneva