I am a strong advocate of the overall positive impact of touristic travel and the 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 and mining concessions to a national park with a view to attracting tourists.
Closer to home, the government of the Maldives banned fishing of 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.
Back in 2008, my wife Eva and I noticed a huge number of plastic water bottles washed up on our beaches at Soneva Fushi in the Maldives. We decided not to point fingers, but took the decision to stop offering branded bottle water, and instead serve water filtered, mineralised, alkalised, and bottled on site in reusable glass bottles. Half the revenues from our water sales go to the Soneva Foundation to fund the work of charities such as Water Charity and Thirst Aid.
In 2008 we took a simple step of adding a mandatory two percent carbon levy to our guests’ bills, to off-set travel emissions. It was a relatively small charge, which we found our guests more than happy to accept. And the rewards have been great. In four years we have raised about US$5million, which the Soneva Foundation has used to fund a reforestation programme in northern Thailand. Through this, we have planted around half-a-million trees, mitigating around 400,000 tons of CO2. Additionally, funds have financed wind-power generators in south India, and even a commitment to 150,000 low-carbon cooking stoves in Myanmar and Darfur.
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. The end result was born out of the philosophy of simple sophistication and returning luxuriously to nature, while also shouldering the responsibility of being custodians of the beautiful places we operate in.